It was a celebration Suncorp Super Netball Grand Final MVP, Mwai Kumwenda, will remember, always.
Sunday afternoon. The 20-plus Melbourne Vixens players and staff who had endured 93 days of hub life crowded into the change-room at Brisbane’s Nissan Arena. The achievement: that tense, thrilling, engrossing 66-64 defeat of the West Coast Fever.
The Vixens’ club song was belted out. There were tears of joy, pride and relief. Hugs and photos. With defender Jo Weston in her customary role as DJ, there was dancing. Some bubbly was passed around in plastic cups.
And for the first time in her 31 years, non-drinker Kumwenda took a sip.
“That taste a little bit different for me. I was like ‘oh my gosh’,’’ she says, laughing merrily as she recounts the tale after a season like no other.
“But I just need to do it because this moment comes once. I just need to do it. Enjoy with the girls.’’
Kumwenda’s role was critical. Not only, as coach Simone McKinnis noted, did the goal shooter keep Fever captain Courtney Bruce “busy”, she also stood up heroically as a a strong and composed target who would finish her first national league Grand Final with 47 goals from 50 attempts.
“‘MJ’ was fantastic,’’ McKinnis says. “Some of the balls that she pulled in were just incredible, and she was under a lot of physical pressure as well.
“But the girls the balls just kept putting the balls up and she was just taking them and maintaining balance and putting the shot up. And getting that intercept at the end…’’
Ah, yes, the intercept. It came with around three minutes remaining as the Vixens trailed their surging opponents 60-61, Kumwenda desperate to make amends for a rare shooting mistake a moment earlier.
“When I missed the goal I was thinking ‘oh my God, oh my God! We were winning this’,’’ says Kumwenda. “So after I get that intercept that was good for the team. I was like ‘oh, yes!’.’’
To have shared the goal circle with retiring pair Tegan Philip and Caitlin Thwaites was special, too. “It was just amazing playing with them,’’ says Kumwenda.
“Tegan, I have been playing with her for four years now and she has been helping me a lot, and it is just amazing to play with her. And Caitlin, she is one of the best players in the world. They are teaching me things and I am learning every time.
“I will miss playing with them and we will have to work hard [without them] because they are superstars. We will miss them, but all those who are coming we will try our best to help each other so that we can also win next year again.’’
The elastic shooter’s belief has built over this season, although McKinnis saw promising signs early on. After a limited role late in 2019 after returning from an ACL tear, the popular Malawian added her own element to the fairytale send-off for Philip and Thwaites.
“We saw her back at her best this year, which was fantastic,’’ says McKinnis. “You could tell right at the start of the season because she was using her voice, she was up and about, and bringing that confidence. She’s almost showing off because she’s just loving it and playing her game.’’
The finest of her career, in fact, according to Kumwenda, who celebrated with the Hulk-like double-bicep flex that she now jokes is “my move now - powerful”. On the biggest stage, too, given that her only previous Grand final at anything close to this level was in the second-tier ANL for the Victorian Fury back in 2013.
“I think this is the best game I’ve played personally because coming back from injury, and Bruce is one of the best players in the world and she gave me tough time there. But the girls we did our best and we keep everything simple. Normal.
“It means a lot for me and also it means a lot for Victoria, because we also think about our families in Victoria. Everyone was just working hard, and this is my first-time experience playing the best netball in the world and getting MVP, but I’m just part of the girls.
“It was tough year for us but we worked very hard and I’m very proud of the girls and also I need to thank them, the Melbourne Vixens family, for helping me because I was back from injury and coming there, playing my best netball. I need to thank a lot of people who support me - like (physio) Steve (Hawkins) and (conditioning guru) John (Tascone). I can never thank them enough.’’
As the congratulatory messages flooded in, Kumwenda also thought of her mother, Costa, back in her village in Malawi. The youngest of eight children hopes to get a clearance to return home for a visit in late November and plans to show Costa a replay of the game on her laptop.
She will also take some new vocabulary, courtesy of some keen instruction during life in the Queensland bubble.
“I always call them ‘sisters’ but now I’m calling them ‘mates’. I can’t say it the way you guys say it!’’ she laughs. Em Mannix has taught her “roger that”, while “no worries” comes courtesy of Kate Moloney.
But back to Sunday. Later in the night, the team-and-friends celebrations continued at a riverside bar on Brisbane’s Eagle St Pier. It was a warm night and, eventually, Kumwenda felt a little thirsty for something sweet.
“I’ve never take a glass of wine but yesterday I took a glass of wine,’’ she says, bursting into infectious laughter again. “It’s just different. I like better the wine than the champagne.’’
And loves her teammates. Adores winning. Played a huge part in this, an achievement for the ages.
Cheers, then? As MJ might say, roger that, mate.
Written by Linda Pearce