When the letters PKNC were added to the back of the Melbourne Vixens’ playing dress last season, a symbolic nod to a rich past coincided with the introduction of a bold new Suncorp Super Netball future.
On the historic round one night the Vixens upstaged new local rival Collingwood, the capacity crowd at Hisense Arena was reminded that no other club in the competition was born quite like this one: back in 2007, from the merger of two longstanding, accomplished and fiercely combative opponents.
The Phoenix and Kestrels had waged competitive war in the old national competition for over a decade; suddenly, with the ushering in of the trans-Tasman league for 2008, they would cast off their individual identities to combine in new colours and with a new name, brand and logo. Two sets of coaches and staff were halved, and the combined player list trimmed from 32 to 12.
“My memories are that the Phoenix and the Kestrels were two really proud clubs, with really strong cultures and the strong traditions of Victorian netball,’’ recalls Joh Munro (Curran), then a talented young (Phoenix) defender, now a Vixens’ specialist coach.
“The coming together of all that was a really, really exciting time, but there was so much talent to pick from, and it was an honour to be selected because I remember a lot of girls had to go and look for opportunities elsewhere,’’ Munro recalls.
“It was so competitive, and I think at the time Kestrels had quite a young, exciting list coming through, and Phoenix had the kind of players who were just champions of the sport already - like your Sharelle McMahons and Eloise Southbys, Tash Chokljats and Bianca Chatfields.
“And I think that’s what’s really special about the Vixens is (coaches) Simone (McKinnis) and Di (Honey) and even Sharelle and Eloise being involved, there’s still that great history with Phoenix and Kestrels, we’ve still got (physio) Steve Hawkins, who was part of the Kestrels team.
“So, there’s still that heritage and legacy from both clubs. It’s a really special environment to be a part of and I guess that’s what makes Vixens so amazing.’’
The so-called “Dream Team” did take a season to truly gel, however. Foundation coach Julie Hoornweg recalls enlisting independent selectors to help choose the playing list that would eventually comprise seven from Phoenix, four Kestrels (including rookie Madison Robinson) and a loud and promising young AIS graduate from the Mornington Peninsula named Sharni Layton.
The aim was not just to cater for the present, but lay foundations for the future, as well.
Expectations were high, Hoornweg concedes. Of course they were. In Victorian netball, as Curran laughs, “we do put a lot of pressure on ourselves to win, because that’s what we love doing, and that’s what we’re good at, so finishing fourth that year probably wasn’t ideal!’’
It was also a transition slightly harder for the Kestrels minority, under a new coach, and Hoornweg believes the ability of shooters McMahon (Phoenix) and Caitlin Thwaites (Kestrels) to eventually solidify their new partnership of contrasting game styles and personalities was emblematic of the challenges faced - and eventually conquered - by the broader merger itself.
Hoornweg still smiles as she recounts McMahon jumping into Thwaites’ arms for a joint embrace in the seconds after the final whistle in the 2009 grand final against the Adelaide Thunderbirds, as the first of two Vixens’ championships came five years before 2014 - and with McKinnis as coach - delivered the last.
‘’Sometimes you can get on the court and just flow with somebody but that didn’t happen with those two,’’ Hoornweg says of her two star goalers. “So when we won the next year and they turned to each other first, straight away, and not to anyone else, it was like ‘whoa’. It was fantastic. To me that was just ‘that’s it. It’s Kestrels-Phoenix no more. It’s just Vixens’.’’
And so it remains, even if the journey embarked upon back in 2007 was officially commemorated only last year with the addition of those four letters onto the back of the jade, crimson and navy dresses.
PKNC. What is only a small presence below each Vixen’s individual number has such a big tale to tell.
Munro, for her part, stresses that her contemporaries have a good appreciation of where the sport started, how far it’s come, and, thus, what this all means. “(PKNC) is a tip of the cap to the girls who set the pathway for the current generation,’’ she says.
"If you were involved with either the Phoenix or the Kestrels, you really understood how strong that club culture was, so to have that represented on the back of the dress kind of represents where Victorian netball is now, and it’s really special. And we put a fair bit of effort into explaining the importance of it to the girls.’’
Message received, says current Vixens captain Kate Moloney, once a young Kestrels supporter (that was the ball she chose, randomly, during an early visit to the State Netball and Hockey Centre), but now a leader who jokes after nominating Chokljat as a childhood favourite: “I should say it was Simone, shouldn’t I?’’
Sorry, too late for an enduring coach’s favourite - although not for some genuine words about last year’s decision to delve back into Netball Victoria’s history, and the acknowledgement of the engine driving what has been so successful for so long.
“That’s really the reason we are the Vixens is because of the players who went before us, so for us to be able to wear the Phoenix-Kestrels Netball Club on the back of our dresses means a lot to us,’’ Moloney said ahead of the marquee round one rematch against the Magpies on 28 April.
“Last year with Collingwood coming in, the biggest difference between the two of us was how much history we did have as the Vixens, and we thought that was a really big strength of ours and something that we really wanted to represent - as well as the current players through the Netball Victoria pathways.
“Phoenix and Kestrels had such a great rivalry and were able to combine as one and make such a strong team. The great thing about the competition now is we have another rivalry now in Melbourne and we’re loving that about it, as well.’’
By Linda Pearce, multi-award-winning netball writer with over 30 years experience.