Mothers bib up again on return to international netball

By Taroi Black

Reuniting with whānau and friends not seen since lockdown, has given new inspiration to the comeback story of Kayla (nee Cullen) Johnson and Phoenix Karaka into the Silver Ferns netball environment.

Both Māori athletes took time away from the game to become first-time mothers last year. Today, in Te Whanganui a Tara, was their hit out in the trials for the Quad Series against Australia, England and South Africa in the UK in January.

“It was scary initially but I'm just happy to be back around the girls and being in a familiar but not-familiar environment,” Johnson (Ngāpuhi)  says.

She played 47 test caps for the Ferns before she moved to Australia with her husband, NRL rugby league star Shaun Johnson, in 2019.

But since he has signed back with the Warriors, it has become obvious Johnson still has the hunger to play in the black dress and has signed up with the Northern Stars club in Counties Manukau.

Taurua's fitness standards

With that in mind, Johnson, 29, will be in contention for the 2022 Birmingham Commonwealth Games.

Her last major tournament appearance was the 2015 Sydney Netball World Cup where she was in phenomenal form. This time she will be guided by the world’s winning coach, Dame Noeline Taurua, on her return.

“I love the energy she [Taurua] brings - it's always a positive one and she's also constructive as well.”

Karaka (Ngāti Whātua), 28, last played for the Ferns in the Nations Cup over in England earlier in 2021, before the Coronavirus pandemic.

The fitness standards Taurua has set since their World Cup victory in 2019, where Karaka was part of the 12-player squad is still the catalyst in today’s team. Her time back with the Northern Mystics coming out of maternity leave, and winning the season, has helped the circle defender along the way.

“I am mentally preparing myself as a mum -  that's helped a lot in terms of getting on with it,” Karaka says.

Bolstering the defence

“I'm just really excited to be a part of it even if I don't go on the UK tour.”

The announcement of goalkeeper Jane Watson's pregnancy has meant  Taurua may look for experience to bolster her defensive line.

“I think there are others who are knocking on the door and it's an opportunity to see what they can do at the international arena,” Taurua says.

“If I go on past experiences and history there usually are people who put their hand up. But when people are new to the environment, theyve got nothing to lose.”