The champion Southern Sting netball era will be remembered this weekend at a reunion honouring 20 years since the Sting’s formation. NATHAN BURDON covered much of the decade-long success as a journalist and shares his thoughts on those glory days.
IT was one of the most poignant moments in Southland’s sporting history, but I had my head down and missed it.
The 2007 National Bank Cup netball final on that odd parquet floor at the North Shore Events Centre provided the culmination of a decade of domestic dominance by the Southern Sting.
And with 2min 20sec left on the clock, the scores locked at 48-all, Force shooter Megan Dehn baulked under the post and looked to pass the ball back out of the circle to one of her attackers.
Instead, she found the welcomingly hostile arms of Liana Barrett-Chase. The Sting scored from the turnover and then again off their own centre pass. They would go on to win 50-49 for their seventh national title in 10 years.
But I was busy asking everyone around me what had just happened. I’d been pounding frantic words into an ancient laptop, deadline pressure shooting off fireworks inside my head and the threat of extra time heaping anxiety on distress.
I’d missed it. The biggest moment of a massive season, the finale to a 10-year phenomenon which had helped lift this province out of a year of spiralling financial gloom and lack of belief.
A few other factors were involved in that recovery, of course, but the Sting – a female sports team in a region which clings to its blokeness with increasingly white knuckles – had become the living embodiment of a new-found sense of identity and confidence.
Southlanders could win. They could. Not just now and again, they could take it to the best in the country and dominate.
After suffering through the sort of population decline which saw the equivalent of a busload of people a week leaving the province for good, the Sting were actually attracting the best players to Invercargill to live.
Amazing athletes like Bernice Mene and Donna Wilkins and Adine Wilson and Tania Dalton wanted to be Southlanders, and we loved them for it.
If you weren’t here then, it’s probably a little hard to imagine. The public didn’t just follow this team, they were part of the team.
Those Sting players walked among us, they were part of the community.
It could take a Sting player an hour to walk down Esk St because everyone wanted to talk about the game.
At the old Centennial Hall, the crowd was asked to bunch up closer on the benches because there were still people outside wanting to come in.
Grizzled men growled in knowledgeable terms about a game they had never played, or previously been interested in.
People queued outside through the night for Sting tickets. We pretty much built the best stadium in the country just for “Ray’s girls” to play in.
I’m not making any of this up.
We got to watch, in Robyn Broughton and Donna Wilkins, arguably the best coach-player combination I’ve seen short of Graham Henry and Richie McCaw.
I’ve tried to do this column justice, but it’s really hard. While writing this I’ve had Tania Dalton in the front of my mind – a special player, but an even more special person.
Lots of winning teams have a special chemistry. You can explain chemistry, but you can’t really explain magic.