It’s funny, the things you learn when 20 or so Melbourne Vixens netballers and staff share a month on the road, borders having closed suddenly again on Covid-troubled Victoria, and with still no certainty about when anyone will be home.
Example: it would be interesting if you happened to be a Vixens official heading back from the University of the Sunshine Coast to the team accommodation in Mooloolaba, with Simone McKinnis at the wheel, hurtling along the motorway after she has taken a wrong turn.
And then for the head coach to announce that she actually can’t see a thing at night without her glasses. Which, presently, she doesn’t have.
“That wasn’t overly comforting,’’ laughs Vixens general manager Bek Webster, who reveals that, as they were eventually making a loop back in the right direction, a stop at some traffic lights allowed for the hasty installation of assistant coach Sharelle McMahon in the driver’s seat instead.
Example two: you might discover that fellow assistant Di Honey and team manager Lisa Taylor fare rather well for novice punters, with a nice little windfall from a Saturday quadrella proving to be quite a profitable way to pass the time. Horse-racing. Random names and numbers. Who knew?
All of which provided a few laughs in the latest challenging period of continuing sacrifice for the reigning-premiers-turned-bottom-of-the-ladder 1-6 Vixens, as a still-tight-knit group takes whatever wins it can get.
“It’s no secret that we’ve not performed anywhere near where we would have hoped,’’ says Webster, a key but low-profile member of Team Vixens.
“This week has felt a bit more settled, which is good. They’ve done some really good sessions this week before they go on their four-day break, so we’re looking onwards and upwards after a pretty tumultuous few weeks.
“It’s about refocusing and going ‘all right, we’re halfway through the season, this is what we need to do for the next half, this is the job, and how do we get that back on track?’.
“Over the the four-day break, we’ve let them know that they’re free to go and do what they want to do, and we’re helping making sure they’ve got ground transport if they want a car, things like that.’’
As journeys go, this one started just after 9am on Wednesday, May 26, when Webster received notification from Netball HQ that the Vixens needed to be on a plane to Queensland by 4pm.
Cue hasty packing (having been advised to take extra gear, just in case), no time to organise additional training partners (just the 11 who were due to train that afternoon were looped-in) and frantic phone calls to all who could be reached.
Even at Tullamarine, though, where all had assembled by 1.30pm, there was still a scramble for accommodation at the other end, given the earlier-than-planned arrival, and much work needed to confirm exactly where heads would hit pillows that night.
“I know the league’s plan at that stage was to have everyone away from home for the least amount of time possible, but the word that was coming through from government was that borders were about to start closing, so it was a bit of a frantic morning,’’ says Webster.
“I think it caught us more by surprise this year than last year. The couple of days prior we’d been aware obviously that there’d been a couple of cases popping up, but there was a process that the league would run us through when these things occurred, and I think we were forced to skip a few steps.
"We went from triage to getting on a plane, without the couple of meetings in between. It took us a while to get everyone on flights, but we all got to the airport and away we went.’’
Uncertainty has been the consistent theme since. Far less so than in the unchartered territory of 2020 when, once the Vixens had arrived in Brisbane for two weeks of quarantine, the understanding was that they would be staying put for three months. This time was different, with moves between Brisbane, Sydney and Mooloolaba. So far.
Now, the bye. The idea behind it, as endorsed by the Australian Netball Players Association, is to give players a mental and physical break from netball; a retreat to refresh with family and friends. The reality of SSN in pandemic times means a rather significant tweak to that idea.
In the Vixens’ case, heading back to Victoria then meant spending almost a week in Sydney on the return journey before travelling to Perth and into quarantine ahead of the round eight clash with the flag favourites on June 27.
So, after multiple rounds of the varied consultation that has been a recurring theme, the decision was jointly made to stay in Queensland this week, head directly to Perth and then, fingers crossed, return to Melbourne for an overdue visit back home.
“I don’t want to use it as an excuse for last week but it took a lot for the group to work through those processes; the biggest impact has probably been the mental fatigue over the past couple of weeks,’’ says Webster.
“Our plan is to come back to Melbourne from Perth and if borders haven’t opened up by then, there is an option for that (round nine) game against the Lightning to be relocated.”
There is a long weekend reset to come first. With McMahon and physio Steve Hawkins unable to stay beyond last Saturday’s disappointing loss to the Magpies, and Soft Tissue Therapist Emma Athanasiou having already departed for differing reasons, numbers in the travelling party have shrunk to 18.
Over the coming days, a few players plan to head out away from Sunshine coast, hopeful to catch up with friends and loved ones that can make their way through borders. Others will make some day trips to Noosa and elsewhere around South East Queensland.
Mental health and wellbeing considerations are paramount, which means consensus is key, all opinions are welcome and anyone who needs to head home before this current tour of duty is over will have the full support of the broader Vixens’ team.
A tip, though: if it’s dark, maybe don't ask the head coach for a lift to the airport. Or, just to be sure, ask if she has her glasses. It might save both an unwanted detour and some slightly nervous moments.
Written by Linda Pearce