Sticks and Stones

by The Listener / 18 April, 2013
Transtasman netball’s outbreak of name-calling has echoes of the school playground.
Netball’s recent snarlfest was an exception that proves the rule: in terms of media coverage, women’s sport is too nice for its own good.

Irene van Dyk, left, and Laura Geitz: assassin vs battering ram. Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images

The rough play controversy that convulsed the transtasman league might have discomforted administrators who live in fear of their sport being brought into disrepute, whatever that means in real life, but would have delighted those more concerned with profile, revenue and bums on seats. It put netball on the back page, jostling for prime position with the latest outbreak of hostilities in the cricketing conflict that’s beginning to look like a civil war.

It started with Central Pulse coach Robyn Broughton complaining about the battering Donna Wilkins got from Queensland Firebirds’ goal keep Laura Geitz. Then Waikato-Bay of Plenty Magic’s Irene van Dyk accused West Coast Fever defenders of dirty play and “getting away with murder”.

Tasty though these exchanges were, they were mere appetisers. The spectacular main course was served up by the Perth-based Fever’s coach, Norma Plummer, who delivered a “spray”, as Australians call it, of epic proportions. We are barely into autumn, but it seems a safe bet that Plummer has already given the most off-the-leash sports interview of 2013.

She savaged van Dyk (“I could show you some unbelievable stuff on van Dyk, and you’d be bloody shocked; we call her the Smiling Assassin”), Magic coach Noeline Taurua (“If Noeline thinks she wants to be Silver Ferns coach, she’s got a long way to go”), Pulse goal keep Katrina Grant (“No bloody sweetheart either”), Wilkins, Broughton and New Zealand netball in general.
Surprisingly there was no mention of Kiwi dole bludgers cluttering up Bondi beach or New Zealand not pulling its weight in military matters. Perhaps her cellphone battery was running low.

To say Plummer is no shrinking violet is like saying Margaret Thatcher wasn’t everybody’s cup of tea; when she coached Australia, she called the Silver Ferns “a bunch of scrubbers”. But perhaps lobbing verbal hand grenades over the ditch is just something Aussie sports people feel obliged to do.

Last week, for instance, former Wallaby turned commentator Greg Martin lent his support to rugby’s equivalent of the birther theory: the notion that Wallabies Kiwi coach Robbie Deans is a Trojan horse dispatched by the New Zealand Rugby Union to sabotage Australian rugby.

When he was involved with Wales, the much-travelled Aussie rugby coach Scott Johnson called Aotearoa “a poxy little island in the Pacific”. He subsequently apologised, acknowledging that it’s actually “two poxy little islands in the Pacific”.

The affair was reminiscent of the dirty play rows that used to crop up in rugby back in the days before citing commissioners and red and yellow cards: the incident provokes an accusation, which is met with a stonewall denial, swiftly followed by a swingeing counter-attack.

Plummer followed the time-tested script, referencing the incriminating footage of van Dyk on her laptop and suggesting that although Kiwi players can dish it out, they can’t take it: “You can’t touch Donna [Wilkins]; Donna will whinge even if you brushed her”. The clear message was that whereas Kiwi wimps bleat like stricken sheep the moment the going gets tough, Aussie cowgirls don’t cry.

There’s an unmistakable echo of the school playground in this sort of name-calling and petty points-scoring, so it was predictable that Plummer would sign off with a warning that if New Zealand isn’t careful, Australian netball might just take its ball and hoop and go home: “Let’s get serious: we could have a competition without you.”
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