A powerful endorsement of the depth of experience and excellence in the recast 2021 Melbourne Vixens squad is the fact that the newest member of the official leadership group is a brilliant 42-Test Diamond and former Australian 21/U vice-captain.
Her name: Jo Weston. By any measure, quite a handy addition.
Indeed, the 27-year-old’s elevation to join her close friends Kate Moloney (captain), Emily Mannix (vice-captain) and the injured Liz Watson (co-captain last year, and retained in the leadership quartet while sidelined for the season following foot surgery) means that four of the players identified by coach Simone McKinnis back in 2015 as the future of the Vixens are now part of an exclusive yet resolutely inclusive club.
“We’ve played with each other since we were 14 or 15, so it’s kind of nice to have it made official by Simone and the rest of the playing group,’’ says Weston.
“On the flipside of that, we know we can be pretty tight-knit, so it’s not about separating ourselves from the rest of the group. We’re obviously a wide squad, so it’s making sure that we’re taking in everyone’s opinions and everyone feels included at the same time.’’
In 2020, the four stayed in two apartments across a Brisbane hallway - defenders on one side and midcourters on the other - during their 13 weeks spent in Suncorp Super Netball’s Queensland hub.
As the Vixens secured their third - and most challenging - championship since the merger of the Phoenix and the Kestrels in 2008, Watson shared the captaincy with the long-serving Moloney, while the popular Mannix filled a leadership position for the first time.
Weston has always set a fiercely-competitive on-court example, and has this year been rewarded for the growth that has been obvious to many, having also become an expert in what she calls “channelling her inner specialist coach” while recovering from a calf injury suffered during the Constellation Cup series in New Zealand in March.
As president of the Australian Netball Players’ Association, and having only recently stepped down as the athletes’ representative on the SSN Commission, Weston says she has tended in previous years to focus her leadership energies off the court.
But few players are more crucial to the Vixens' fortunes, and this new role is one she welcomes.
So. Time for some Weston wisdom.
On Moloney: “She embodies not just what the Melbourne Vixens stand for, but what anyone would love to have in a leader of any elite sporting team. She leads by her actions, she’s got a really good way of being able to bring everyone together to get on the same page… and she just gives so much of herself to others, so that makes her really special and we’re really lucky to have her in the Vixens crew.’’
On Mannix: “Emily has got a really good way of emotionally connecting with people, and when you look at how far she has come in her dedication to achieving success in netball, that’s really built a lot of respect from people about all of the sacrifices and all of the driving (from the Bellarine Peninsula) and all of the time she’s spent really becoming a world-class goal keeper for the Melbourne Vixens.’’
On Watson: “Liz is such a big loss for us as a team. She’s obviously a phenomenal athlete and is such a gun in that wing attack position, but alongside that she really does bring that fearlessness and leadership out on court in the attack end. We’re really lucky that she’s still able to contribute while she’s rehabbing.’’
And Weston on Weston? What does she hope to bring to the leadership team?
“I feel like a good combination of sensible and silly, and it’s probably about finding the right times to know when to take things seriously and when to take things lightly. I think I bring a bit of experience from things away from the court, and that’s where I know that my squad members rely on me - they come to me with questions which I hopefully can answer.
“Alongside that, I think it’s my competitiveness on court which can be a little bit off-putting for some of the people who have to play against me, but that is what we pride ourselves on at the Melbourne Vixens: we want to be the toughest competitors out on court and I like to think that’s something I bring to our leadership group.’’
Moloney, appointed as a young captain in place of Madi Browne in 2017, has done the job alone, then together with her buddy Watson last season, and is now going solo again in 2021.
But, well, not really.
“It’s always a massive honour and something I’m really proud of, but I’ve got a really great team with me this year and it’s something I’m really excited about,’’ says Moloney.
“Emily did a great job last year as vice-captain and now Joey is going to step up as well. I think Joey’s leadership has just grown so much over the last couple of years, and the way she goes about things on court and the way she leads in that sense is just great.
“Obviously with Lizzy, her leadership is second to none always, and she’ll still be around, and the way that she’ll still lead off the court is going to be really great for our team.
"The biggest thing about the four of us is that we’re all quite different leaders, and I think we’re going to really complement each other and work really well as a team.’’
Given how close the quartet has long been in every respect, Moloney says the ability to speak openly and honestly helps when hard conversations are needed. Her pride is obvious, too, when she reflects on how far they have all come, together, as one-club players.
Career Vixens, all.
Specifically, Moloney loves the intensity and hunger Weston brings to each on-court minute, which rubs off on everyone in the navy dress. Mannix, she says, is the ultimate team player, a friend to all, helping to provide the glue that binds the group.
Weston talks, too, of the deep bond shared, while reflecting on a season that brought a famous two-goal defeat of the West Coast Fever - the Vixens’ opening round opponent when SSN resumes at John Cain Arena on Saturday, 1 May.
“The four of us have learnt the hard way what it’s like to make finals and not perform when you really want to, so last year was such a huge step forward for all of us and our Vixens team being able to win a championship and have peak performance in the game where it really matters,’’ says the brilliant GD.
“Emily and I in that defensive unit got the rebound of our life, apparently, so that’s something that is really important to leadership - it’s being able to talk the talk and also walk the walk out on court.’’
The Melbourne Vixens will begin their title defense in round 1 of Suncorp Super Netball this Saturday, 1 May. The Vixens will host West Coast Fever in a grand final re-match at John Cain Arena, with tickets available through Ticketek.