Tayla Honey couldn’t admit it to herself. Not immediately. The prospect was too devastating.
It was the opening practice match of the 2019 pre-season, Honey’s first as a fully-fledged Vixen after two years as a training partner and replacement player.
The dynamic young midcourter’s opponent was Renae Ingles. The move was a routine attacking drive - one completed without incident thousands of times before.
“I pushed off and just felt my Achilles snap, so it was a very innocuous,’’ says Honey, who recalls Ingles turning around to ask what had happened.
“I think deep down I knew it was my Achilles. I was trying to make excuses ‘maybe it’s my calf, maybe someone kicked me’. But I was right.’’
And then the reality hit. “I just thought ‘I’m gonna be out for 12 months, this is my first contract, and it’s gone. It’s been taken away from me in two seconds’. It was pretty upsetting.’’
It was also, Honey would learn, almost exactly the same spot on the State Netball Hockey Centre court where current Vixens' assistant coach Sharelle McMahon had suffered an Achilles rupture against the Queensland Firebirds back in 2011.
Still, in McMahon, Honey had someone who could help explain what the rehab would involve, having been through it herself, while head physio Steve Hawkins would be there to advise that an Achilles is a very different and more variable injury than the ACL tears suffered recently by Mwai Kumwenda and Rahni Samason, plus Tegan Philip before them.
“Obviously you see a lot of ACLs and you sort of know how things are going to progress,’’ says Honey. “Seeing MJ and Rahni being able to run in three months, and start doing netball stuff in five months, I'm like ‘why is mine so different and taking so much longer?’.
“I’m the most impatient person ever! Our physios are probably so sick of me asking them constantly ‘when can I do this, when can I do that? Am I ready yet? Can I start doing this?’
“I obviously wanted things to progress as quickly as I could, and sometimes that probably worked to my detriment and set me back a little bit, so I’ve sort of learnt to let it run its course and when it’s ready it will let me do what I want to do.''
Although her surgeon and Hawkins have predicted a full recovery, it was only natural for Honey to worry whether the athlete who returned would feel different from the pre-injury version.
It took around six months before Honey could even walk without a limp, and the third-year Melbourne University law student admits that the hardest part was “knowing that I am ready to take that next step my netball career’’, but being physically unable to do so.
She had lost one full year after winning a contract, and it was a tense wait to discover if there would be another.
“Oh, my God!’’ laughs Honey. “Obviously the whole year I was training with the intent of being put back in the team, trying to show them that I’m working as hard as I possibly can, so once the season finished, I guess that’s when things became more real and it was time for yay or nay. It was hard for about a month or so not knowing where I stood in the team, or whether I was going to be in it.’’
Announcements trickled out, as four Vixens re-signed, and one - her former Victorian Fury teammate Kate Eddy - was recruited from the NSW Swifts. With a single list vacancy remaining, and with coach Simone McKinnis away on annual leave, Honey was called to a 6.30am solo meeting at the VIS with Bek Webster, laughing now that she was unsure at the time whether that was a good sign. Or not.
But, just as it was 12 months earlier when McKinnis was the deliverer, the news was positive. And Honey truly is different now, but in a good way, she believes, having being taught more by her injury than she suspects she may have learnt on the court.
“I think it has made me so much more mature, and resilient, and this time around I feel so much more ready than I did last year,'' she says.
“It’s not that I took it for granted the first year, but I don’t think you realise what you have until it’s taken away. I know that sounds really cliched, but because I couldn’t really walk at all, I couldn’t jog, I couldn’t do anything that I could usually do, I was like ‘I’ve got to get back and get in this team so I can feel those emotions and be in the team environment again’.’’
Her mother Di, the former Australian player turned long-time Vixens’ assistant turned Fury coach, has long provided both inspiration and support. This month, there was also relief and happiness that the eldest of the three Honey children, who had been through so much, would have another chance.
Although contrasting personalities, the quieter Tayla has her mother’s speed, desire and “inner-ruthlessness’’, she says, while dad Neil, a former Commonwealth Games pole vault bronze medallist, also contributes pace and elevation to a talented gene pool.
Brother Josh is an AFL draft hopeful next month and his twin sister Olivia represented Victoria as a junior netballer, but is also a talented sprinter who was recently selected for a national relay camp. Board games have rarely been more competitive than in the Honey house.
Fortunately, Tayla will soon have another - more physical - outlet. Second time around, the state representative since 15-and-under schoolgirls level is still the youngest and least experienced Vixen, with just a couple of minutes of Suncorp Super Netball court-time to show for two seasons on the fringes and then another in the rehab club.
“It does give you a lot more confidence to know that I have been out there and done parts of it before. I haven’t had a lot of exposure or court-time but it’s nice having dipped my toes in and knowing what to expect, somewhat,'' Honey says.
“I feel like I’m so ready for it, and so excited, and I just want to take it on with two hands and just give it my all.’’
Written by Linda Pearce