Bringing a group of young netballers to New Zealand proved a double-edged sword for ex-Silver Fern Joline Henry. Having been based in the hustle-bustle of Hong Kong for two years, she relished being home. “The fresh air, the fresh food, the friendly locals… Being back has made me appreciate what we have here in New Zealand,” she says with a pang of longing.
Yet very quickly, her passion for what she’s doing in Hong Kong comes through. Having led the netball programme at Harrow International School since 2015, she recently brought a group of 13-15 year olds to New Zealand to experience how the game is played here. There are over 250 young players at Harrow, with the elite stream having the chance to come to New Zealand with their coach – who they weren’t aware had such a respected standing in the game. “When we had a powhiri and some Sky TV cameras show up at one of our games, they were a little shocked!” Joline laughs. “They just think of me as Ms Henry.”
There is a small but passionate netball community in Hong Kong, mostly made up of ex-pat Westerners, and Joline is heavily involved as a coach and a player. “I still don’t call myself a coach,” she laughs. “I just want to keep my passion for the game alive, and the best way I see myself contributing is through schools. That’s how I can help make Hong Kong netball a little bit better.” She is honest in her assessment of where the game is at in Hong Kong. “The standard is quite far behind our own. There is an international team, and they’re in the midst of trying to qualify for the world champs. They are quite a way behind everyone else, but they are making improvements.” Joline has been holding regular workshops to help grow the game and the skill of those involved at club level, but limited resources restricts what is possible on a wider level, including a lack of umpires and officials.
As a PE teacher, she has noticed that children in Hong Kong lack the physical development of Kiwi kids. “They’re well behind our own kids biomechanically,” she tells. “There’s such a lack of space in Hong Kong, so they’re not as well developed in jumping, landing, catching, passing and general spatial awareness. Kiwi kids grow up running around in the backyard, climbing trees, or playing at the local park. There’s just not that room in Hong Kong.”
She takes this into account with the young netballers who come into her programme, and adjusts her expectations accordingly. “It’s not about breeding elite netballers, it’s about developing their skills,” she muses. “I’m used to a certain standard, having played at the elite level, and I’ve had to reform my own expectations.” That mind-set shift has been one of the biggest challenges in her transition from player to coach/mentor. “People play netball for all different reasons, not just to win. It can be a little frustrating for me at times, but I have to be really transparent with myself. My goal is not to make these girls the best in the world, it’s to make them the best they can be.”
Rubbing shoulders with some of New Zealand’s best players was an experience Joline couldn’t wait to share with her players. Calling on her networks within the sport, she was able to set up games against Westlake Girls High School in Auckland and St Peter’s in Cambridge. The group attended ANZ Championship games to see the best in action, and also had the chance to meet and chat with leading players like Casey Kopua, Kayla Cullen and Grace Kara. “It’s a real privilege for the girls to experience all of this,” Joline shares. “They otherwise wouldn’t have exposure to this, and they’re learning so much. It reinforces the messages I’ve been trying to get across, from credible and valid sources. They’re stoked to be here, and I’m so proud to be able to showcase our beautiful country, and how netball operates here.”
Joline wanted to immerse her players in a high performance environment, which is why AUT Millennium’s Accommodation was at the top of her list of venues. “This is my comfort zone, it’s what I know after being an athlete for 15 years,” she says. “But all of this is new for the girls. Staying in a high performance facility, they’ve been able to spend time with some of our elite Kiwi athletes, and emulate what goes on. They’re feeling very fortunate to be in this environment.”
She’s remained a keen observer of how the game has been travelling here since her departure. She is not surprised by the split of the trans-Tasman ANZ Championship competition. “It was unfortunate, really. Australia used us as a vehicle to boost the profile of the sport over there, and once they succeeded in that, they stepped away,” she reflects. Developing the upcoming crop of players is a key factor in the strength of the national provincial competition in Joline’s eyes. “If we focus on depth, from grass roots through to the Beko League, the provincial level will be strong. And when the provincial level is strong, the Ferns programme is strong.”
Following the national side’s early exit at the recent Commonwealth Games and losses in the preceding Taini Jamieson Trophy, Joline made her own observations from afar. “Our results in the latest international fixtures are not something any netballer in New Zealand is proud of,” she says, acknowledging it’s not an easy subject for her. “They’re not the results we associate with New Zealand netball. Everyone expects better.” Without knowing what went on behind closed doors, Joline is reluctant to make too many assumptions but immediately felt for the players. “Something was missing for sure, but unless you are inside the environment and living it, it’s very hard to say what and who, but generally those steering the shop should be looked at first,” she shares. “Reflecting on my experience as a player, a coach needs to win; and if you’re not winning, then you need to either inspire or be making improvements. Unfortunately, our team wasn’t doing any of those, and for me, that’s a reflection of leadership.”
Since her international retirement four years ago, there have been almost double the number of test debutants than there was throughout her entire tenure of 11 years. “I really had to earn my way into the side, with predecessors like Bernice Mene, Vilimaina Davu and Sheryl Scanlan,” Joline recalls. “I’m not saying these players don’t deserve it, or that they don’t wear the dress with pride, but it does seem that there have been a lot of new players recently. Perhaps the culture has evolved, where people expect to be played.” She is cautious when comparing the current selection process to what she experienced. “These are my observations as a past player, who really valued wearing the silver fern, and wants the best for the team and the game.” She remains positive about the future, however. “There’s every chance to make something amazing out of this situation,” she says. “Heading towards the next world champs, we have the ability, and we have the players. I believe they have the tools to turn these recent performances around.”
Joline hopes to return to New Zealand with more Harrow students in the future. “We also have football, hockey, and rugby streams at our school, so it would be wonderful to bring the other sports here for a similar experience.” The fierce determination she was known for on court has translated into her new role. “When people come to Hong Kong and they have a child who plays netball, I want Harrow to be at the forefront of their minds,” she says. “Whatever I’m involved in, I want it to be the best it can be. That pursuit of perfection I had as an athlete has carried over to my career as a teacher.”
Her advice for any young netballer, be it Harrow players or Kiwi kids with access to better resources, is three-pronged. “Dream big, work hard, and be bold – don’t be afraid to do something which will make you stand out,” she advises. She reiterates that there is no substitution for hard work, and it’s clear that the emerging generation of Hong Kong netball players will benefit from following Ms Henry’s example.