When Susan Meaney was rearranging photographs in her Geelong home recently, she came across a treasured picture that, for some reason, had never been hung.
That image, of the 2000 Melbourne Phoenix Premiership team, was both a precious memory and a reminder of a 20-year anniversary about to quietly pass.
“This year’s just all of a sudden gone,’’ says Meaney, the 120-game Phoenix midcourter, former Australian World Youth Cup captain and nine-Test Diamond, now mother of four and Melbourne Vixens specialist coach.
“You’re sort of aware of it at the back of your mind, but the Vixens were doing well, and when I saw the team photo that I just have not put up on the wall anywhere, I went ‘oh, my God, that was 2000 - that’s 20 years. Holy moly’.’’
The pre-coronavirus contrast was with three years ago, when the Phoenix squad that had won the inaugural Commonwealth Bank Trophy - in 1997 under Norma Plummer - gathered for a reunion function before a Vixens home game and in front of a roomful of invited guests.
Yet although Covid-19 prevented any such celebration at Melbourne Arena in 2020, there are tentative plans for a small get-together at coach Joyce Brown’s vineyard in Melbourne’s outer east - if not before Christmas then afterwards.
It was there, on a pre-season visit ahead of a grand triumph two decades ago, that roses were planted by the Phoenix players whose scribbled signatures still - however faded - adorn a post on the Coldstream property.
“I used to love looking at that, because I’m a sentimental old thing,’’ says Brown, now 82, who retired from coaching at the end of 2001 for family reasons.
Consider some of the wonderful netball names on the ageing woodwork: Sharelle McMahon, Bianca Chatfield, Eloise Southby, Liz Boniello (nee Taverner), Natasha Chokljat, Ingrid Dick, and Meaney (nee Howie). A group overseen by the legendary Brown and a rookie assistant coach by the name of Roselee Jencke. As for team manager Richelle McKenzie, she is now the Netball Victoria president.
Note, too, that this core playing group formed the backbone of a team that won four national league championships under three different coaches in six years after the loss of key defensive personnel prompted a rebuild at the end of a difficult 1999.
“Yes, I suppose we got off to a good basic way of playing,’’ says Brown, with masterful understatement. “And they were very good friends. They’re great friends still, and that’s the sign of a very good team.
“They’re a wonderful group. They’re just great trusting mates, and they always will be.’’
Many were also very fine players, with the full squad of 14 completed by Sally Browning, Anne Harrison, Wendy Jacobsen, Leah van Rensburg, Kelly Vennus, Christine Waller and Liz Walton.
These, clearly, were very different times. Meaney recalls players taking their own boxes of cereal on the road because breakfast was beyond the team budget, and wages far below the current Suncorp Super Netball minimum.
Back then: a maximum of $3000 a season, roughly, with the team leaders earning slightly more. For the premiership 12, too, a small engraved clock. Of all things.
The superstar McMahon’s big individual trophies that year were as league and grand final MVP - the latter in a tense 52-51 defeat of the Adelaide Thunderbirds at Melbourne’s long-demolished Glasshouse on a court left sticky by a recent ballroom dancing competition.
As for Phoenix-T'birds rivarly, none in netball was more intense.
Brown: “Very strong indeed. It was SA versus Victoria.’’
Meaney: “Oh, fierce. It was hammer and tongs. Off the court we were pretty good, but we were just really super-competitive, and (Sarah) Sutter and (Kathryn) Harby were very aggressive with their defensive approach, especially against Sharelle. She just used to cop it, I think she was always targeted to try and wear her down, but it was like a red rag to a bull for us to just try to protect her.’’
History will show that another significant event came at half-time in the grand final, when Chatfield, a green but promising 18-year-old defender, came off the bench to partner Boniello in the second half.
“Bianca, she was but a baby, that one,’’ says Brown before adding, tongue-in-cheek: “We had great trouble with her!’’
Meaney recalls: “Just rebuilding that whole defence end was massive and I think Sally Browning played the first half at goal keeper and then Joyce gave this young whipper-snapper from the Mornington Peninsula the tap on the shoulder at half-time.
"I can remember Bianca saying that Liz had looked at her and said ‘you’re right, you’ve got it’. It was just having that belief. She had the confidence and we knew that ‘B’ was going to be a special player.’’
Yet if the defence was developing, and the midcourt revamped to excellent effect, then the established strength was in the attack end.
“Eloise and Sharelle were a terrific combination, because Eloise was a great architect of space and movement of ball and Sharelle was her brilliant self,’’ says Brown.
“I always think of Eloise as the accompanist, the pianist, and Sharelle as the coloratura soprano, I suppose. They were fantastic together.’’
At a reunion now, Meaney suggests little will have changed among the friends, who remain grateful to have been coached by one of the game's greats, her impact on them as both players and people, and the bonds formed during a special period.
Boniello, for example, as the author of the annual team handbook that included what to pack and when to train, is still her organised yet quirky-and loveable self.
“Tash is probably the party one out of everyone. She will deny it, but once she gets going she is,’’ Meaney continues. “Bianca would be across all the social media stuff, Ella would be pretty loud and vocal, and Shazza (McMahon) just goes along with everything and laughs. It’s all great fun.”
And Meaney herself? “Oh, the prankster/clown doing something ridiculous,’’ she laughs, agreeing that some things never change. “It’s been quite an amazing journey with this group off the court because we’re still very heavily involved and connected with each other.’’
If that extends to bridesmaid and godparenting duties, as well as some joint family holidays, then the same goes for personality traits that endure after all these years.
“Like, I don’t know how many drink bottles Sharelle would have lost when she was playing, and I’m not sure she’s any more organised today,’’ says Meaney, but with a parting caveat: “Everyone's the same. But just a bit greyer.’’
Written by Linda Pearce