Linda Pearce, multi-award-winning netball writer with over 30 years experience, caught up with Mwai Kumwenda before she departed for the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast.
As much as Mwai Kumwenda has brought to the Melbourne Vixens in the past 18 months, it’s what she’s taken away to the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games that is occupying the celebrated Malawian shooter for now.
Experience, for one thing. The pillars of Simone McKinnis’ coaching philosophies, for another.
“Simone helps me a lot and my netball has changed a lot,’’ says Kumwenda, who returned to Victoria for the inaugural 2017 Suncorp Super Netball season after three eye-catching ANZ Championship years with the Christchurch-based Tactix.
“I can teach the girls now how to move the ball quickly and keep possession, and how to defend strong.’’
Yet if that hints at an unconventional new role as a playing assistant coach, then the 28-year-old is quick to clarify. “No, I just help them!’’ she laughs. “When you play against Australia and New Zealand, it’s tough, so everything needs to be very strong.’’
On Sunday, it was. Spectacularly so. Kumwenda scored 41 of her team's 57 goals as the dancing Queens completed the upset of the Commonwealth Games netball competition with a four-goal defeat of the dual champion Silver Ferns.
Certainly, as a fixture in the Queens’ goal circle since a stunning international debut at the 2009 World Youth Cup, the first and only Malawian to play in a major international league has had significant exposure to both trans-Tasman rivals.
Collectively, Malawi has finished fifth at the past two Commonwealth Games and has a current world ranking of sixth; individually, its athletic, dynamic, spearhead was the competition’s leading scorer in Glasgow with 230 of her team’s 352 goals and named player of the tournament at the 2015 Netball World Cup.
In a sport of contrasting game styles, Kumwenda describes her homeland’s as “slow, slow, slow, up to the goal post’’, in contrast with the fast-moving Australian way. Resources also vary greatly across the netball landscape, and the Queens came together for the first time less than two weeks before moving into the athletes’ village.
“Some of the girls are coming back from maternity leave, so it’s hard for some of them, but we’re just trying our best,’’ says the player fondly known as ‘MJ’.
There have been other changes, too. For both club and country, Kumwenda has been working on adding the goal attack option to her repertoire, quipping: “It’s (a) good position but I just need to be more fit! But it’s good fun; more freedom.’’
Nsima, the maize-based staple eaten with beef or chicken stew, is no longer to Kumwenda’s westernised taste. “Some of the girls they eat Malawian food, but I always eat Australian food. I get used to this food, yeah!’’
So she feels a little bit Australian now? “I feel like I am more like Vixens family now.’’
The feeling is mutual, as vice-captain and Diamonds’ star Liz Watson attests. While the nations are in different round-robin pools on the Gold Coast, familiarity ensures that respect also goes both ways.
“I know how high ‘MJ’ can jump and how competitive she is,’’ says Watson. “She is probably one of the most competitive people I know, so she’s never, ever going to give up.’’
Yet should Malawi fail to win an unlikely Commonwealth gold, Kumwenda is planning to switch her allegiance to a Diamonds’ team featuring Watson and fellow Vixen Jo Weston.
Family, after all.
“Yeah,’’ she admits, with a smile. “I’ll be supporting my teammates.’’
By Linda Pearce, multi-award-winning netball writer with over 30 years experience.
Photograph: Getty Images