Rahni Samason: Where has she been?

23 days ago

Questions for and about round five Suncorp Super Netball revelation Rahni Samason: Where has she been? And why have we not seen her sooner?

Speaking of questions, Guardian Australia posed another: “The best debut in netball history?”

Regarding the latter, it’s hard to think of a better one, although a “super-flattered’’ Samason confesses happily to a less-than-perfect performance against the Queensland Firebirds in Brisbane on Saturday.

Yet she also acknowledges the fairytale element to that extraordinary SSN opener that included the match-winning two-pointer after the siren among 27 goals at 93% accuracy, the game MVP award, etc, etc.

As for where and why (see above): “I mean, they could have seen me in the VNL - I have been here!" she says with a laugh. “I think it’s just good PR for the Victorian pathway, basically, because I’ve been playing at the Championship level since I was 16. So people didn’t have to look far.’’

The complication is the fact that, for two years and eight months until six weeks ago, there was nothing to see.

After being named the 2018 Deakin University ANL MVP, then finishing her VNL season with the Peninsula Waves in mid-August, 2018, Samason tore her left ACL spent 2019 rehabbing and 2020 in Covid mothballs, before resuming for Ariels in the VNL's April 21 opening round.

Yet it took only five State League appearances and some impressive training form to earn Samason an upgrade to official training partner status at the start of last week. By Wednesday, she was in the team in place of the injured Emily Mannix, and on the plane to Brisbane to escape Victoria’s imminent lockdown.

Then on Saturday, as the starting goal shooter… well, we all know what happened next. And it’s a story unlike any that Vixens’ assistant coach and former shooting great Sharelle McMahon can recall.

“To do that is massive, regardless, but to do it in your first game ever at this level is just quite remarkable, really. It was a whirlwind (week) for all of us, but none more so than Rahni,’’ McMahon says.

“We’ve always thought that she had the ability to give something more and to perform at that level. This is really the first opportunity that she’s had, and didn’t she grab it?’’

Indeed. What Samason told herself when the scores were level and she had ball in hand after a marvellous Kadie-Ann Dehaney intercept in the final 10 seconds was to find her experienced and more senior partner Mwai Kumwenda.

“I was like ‘I just need to get it to MJ, she can hold, she’s strong, she’s got this’,’’ Samason recalls. “Then the contact happened (giving a long-range penalty to Kumwenda), and I saw her put the ball down and I was like ‘all right, I’m taking it, then!’.’’

All’s well that ends in the net, of course - which is not to say that there were not some eyebrows raised. (McMahon wryly describes it as “an interesting decision from MJ” but says she was assured by the Malawian that her intention was to help block the still-in-play defender Kim Jenner to assist Samason take the shot.

Meanwhile, with incredible confidence and composure, Samason just got on with it. “I think MJ just recognised that I had a pretty good streak going and she used the words ‘hot hand’,’’ says the 23-year-old.

“I was like ‘wow, she’s given it to me, she trusts me to take that’. I didn’t see it as a palm off; I saw it as an honour, and then I tried to just blank my mind, think about absolutely nothing and try to sink the shot.

“Knowing MJ had confidence in me kind of just instilled even more confidence. Like, ‘yeah, I do have this. I can shoot from here, and I’ll do it’. It felt quite good coming off the hand, so I knew that it was kind of going to dribble in after it hit the front (of the rim). I was just a bit annoyed that it wasn’t a swish. It wasn’t a pretty shot … but it went in, so that’s the main thing.’’

The only thing, actually. Samason can half-joke that relief at having avoided the extra running involved in five minutes of extra time soon mingled with the joy of knowing she had helped her new team to its first win since last year’s grand final triumph. Same court. Spookily, same score.

The rookie then found herself half-choked in the embrace of an emotional Kumwenda, with whom she had built a strong personal connection while they were rehabbing - and dancing - in the gym alongside current training partner Tayla Honey in 2019.

As to whether she was as calm and nerveless as she looked, or more closely resembled the bird that looks serene from the top-of-water view while paddling madly underneath: “I think it is like one of those duck situations.’’

And generally: “A saying that I really love is ‘fake it til you make it’. So even though I’m feeling super super nervous and anxious inside, I’m just like ‘no, I’m ok! I’ve done this before. I’ve trained a million times, I’ve taken shots from basically everywhere in the circle, so I know I can do it’. So I’m like ‘I’m OK, even though I’m not maybe fully feeling OK’.’’

Especially at goal attack, given Samason estimates that 80 per cent of a netball career that started at representative level at 15/U schoolgirls level, and continued uninterrupted through 17s and 19s to Vic Fury has been spent back at shooter.

Yet she understands the need for versatility, especially given her modest height compared with such giants as Jhaniele Fowler and Romelda Aiken, can she build the motor to follow Caitlin Thwaites and become an unlikely saviour at GA?

“As long as I’m still shooting, that’s good,’’ she ventures. “I’m not gonna run out at centre any time soon!’’

On Saturday, it was not until she had completed the on-court MVP interview (where she coolly declared “it’s my job to shoot”, then worried that may have come across as conceited - it didn’t), sang what she knew of the club song belted out amid much locker-banging, did the media conference, ice bath, et al, that Samason checked her phone.

“It was a bit crazy,’’ admits the daughter of a Cook Islander father and mother with German heritage, who has grown up with four brothers. Injured Giant Keira Austin was among those who had sent lovely messages, along with former Diamonds greats Cath Cox and Bianca Chatfield. “I’m like ‘ooh, I grew up watching you, and now you’re congratulating me?’,’’ she remembers thinking.

Although list-management issues make her future slightly uncertain, the immediate challenge includes the fact that opposition teams will be scouting her now - including the winless Adelaide Thunderbirds in a round six clash shifted to neutral Sunshine Coast territory at 5.45pm on Sunday.

Bring it on.

“Sharelle was saying ‘they have footage of you now and they’re going to really try and work you out and try and exploit your weaknesses',’’ Samason says, before adding, with typical confidence and pragmatism: “And I’m like ‘well, let’s try and bring something different, then’.’’

Written by Linda Pearce

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