To facilitate a season like no other, Jo Weston joined the 21-strong Melbourne Vixens’ travelling party on a journey unlike any they had undertaken before.
Sunday, July 19. From Tullamarine to Brisbane then straight to the team accommodation. So far so normal? Not when two weeks in quarantine await at the other end.
“It was probably the weirdest travel experience I have ever been a part of,’’ says Weston. “It was so surreal. Even boarding at the airport, we were under different guidelines to ‘regular’ people returning to Queensland.
"We sat one seat apart from each other on the plane, we were wiping down everything and changing masks after however many hours and all of that.
“Then when we were at [Brisbane] airport there were so many people flying to Cairns or other locations for holidays. So for us being ‘evacuated’ from Victoria, almost, people were looking at us like "oh, they’re bringing their germs with them."
“The judgment is real!’’
If that last remark is slightly tongue-in-cheek, then Weston also says no-one from among the 14 players, two coaches, various officials and support staff was ready to breathe easily until - eventually - that breath involved an uncovered face.
Beforehand, the uncertainty around a departure date that was postponed multiple times had necessitated days of home lockdown in order to protect the integrity of the most recent COVID-19 tests (all negative, of course).
The positive: the Vixens and Magpies completed their great escape from Australia’s coronavirus capital, the quarantine period is now well-over half-complete, and the greater freedoms of sunny hub life soon await.
So far, there has not been enough spare time to allow boredom to set in - not least because there is high demand for the in-house massage and physiotherapy provided, given the earlier difficulties accessing both due to the restrictions back home.
"So we’ve been spending lots of time trying to get our bodies right and obviously the fixture is pretty jam-packed,’’ says Weston, 26, who has logged 71 games for the Vixens and 38 for the Diamonds, and is a player representative on the Suncorp Super Netball (SSN) Competition Committee.
While the only permission to leave the building is for the daily trip to training at Nissan Arena, there is gratitude for the fact movement is allowed between apartments, and also that limited balcony time allows for short bursts of fresh air, as these are privileges not all those in Queensland quarantine enjoy.
Roommate arrangements have also been tweaked slightly for the initial fortnight, at least, abandoning the usual system of splitting the positional groups and closest friends in the interests of unifying all.
Thus, midcourters and Co-Captains Kate Moloney and Liz Watson are bunking in together, as are circle pals Weston and Emily Mannix. Goal keeper Kadie-Ann Dehaney is sharing with fellow defender Kate Eddy, ditto for shooters Caity Thwaites and Tegan Philip, and Mwai Kumwenda is in with her 2019 rehab buddy, Tayla Honey.
“I guess in the circumstances where we’re not really allowed to leave our rooms too much, it’s helpful having someone that you’re really comfortable with when you’re staying with them for an extended period of time,’’ says Weston, noting the need for everyone, not just the team leaders, to contribute to maintaining morale in challenging times.
“Some people like to have more peace and quiet, others like Emily and I like to be a bit more boisterous, but it’s just making sure we get the right balance of that within the team.
“And obviously our support staff are giving us enough time to regroup, so that when we are at training or doing group activities we’re bringing our best selves and making the most of the time we have together.
"I think that trend will continue once we get out into the big bad world of Brisbane!’’
Entertainment-wise, Mannix brought a Wii, and Weston a Nintendo Switch. Others packed puzzles, cards and outdoor games. There is a list of TV programs and films to be watched jointly, with Weston quipping that she and Mannix plan to get 'very heavily invested' in the new series of The Farmer Wants a Wife.
Weston, who has been pencilled in as the group's podcast host, is among those undertaking tertiary studies (a Masters of Communications at Deakin University, appropriately), while many have sacrificed plenty so that the Suncorp Super Netball show can go on.
One potential silver lining is that an expanded bench during the condensed season is likely to provide opportunities for training partners Jacqui Newton, Elle McDonald, Sasha McDonald and Allie Smith.
No surprise was the fact that game one, on Sunday, will be against the Magpies. No crowds allowed, given incomplete quarantining, but there will be a Telstra TV broadcast, and the first six rounds scheduled in 23 days.
“We’ve got the luxury of being one of the last games of the round, so that will probably give us some good insight as to how the new two-point shot is working and looking,’’ says Weston, with technicalities around the controversial rule change still being worked through.
“The umpires, God bless ‘em, are also working really hard. It’s as difficult for them as it is for us to try to adjust, so I have a lot of respect for them, and they’re just doing the best they can, too.
“Everyone’s banding together to get the season up, and come round one it’s just going to be so different, but it’s going to be so exciting to get the opportunity to play at all in this year.’’
Whatever the location, there is no forgetting the bigger picture. Weston’s father hails from Eurobin, near Bright, where the family owns a walnut farm. It's one of the regions where community sport - so often a regional lifeblood - has been cancelled for 2020.
“It’s been tough across the board, and we’re hoping that at least we can provide a bit of entertainment with our games on the television.’’
From isolation, the view through the bus window is of a life in Queensland that seems 'surprisingly normal' says Weston, even if whatever is normal at the time rarely exists for long, before it changes again.
Playing an SSN game feels like a lifetime ago to the Vixens' star, but the new season is almost upon us, at last. However long it takes to adjust to competing again and all that comes with it, the starting point is like none that has come before.
Written by Linda Pearce