Norma Plummer’s last netball hurrah

The Australian coach came out of retirement to take the Spar Proteas to new heights and wants to go out in style at the upcoming INF Netball World Cup, after which she plans to retire for good.

Norma Plummer is putting the finishing touches to two houses, one for herself and the other for the country that took her out of her retirement home.

Such is her love for netball and the demand for her expertise that the Australian agreed to come out of retirement – Plummer retired in 2014 after a 16-year coaching stint – when Netball South Africa (Netball SA) knocked on her door in 2015. She answered the call to be the Spar Proteas coach and, four years later, her journey with the rainbow nation will culminate in the INF Netball World Cup from 12 to 21 July in Liverpool, England. Thereafter, she’ll be enjoying her newly renovated home down under with daughter Brooke.

“I have been sprucing up the house, renovating everything. I’ve done the bathrooms, brand-new kitchen, brand-new huge windows throughout the house. All new curtains, all painted. The carpets are going in when I get home. After that, I am going to get myself fitter,” she said with a chuckle, followed by a big smile.

Plummer, at 74 years of age, has poise and grace. She smiles and is polite to all and sundry. She comes out of the conference room, where she has been having one-on-one sessions with players after a week of Spar Proteas trials, to apologise for not having been able to start the interview at the scheduled time.

This is rare among coaches and sportspeople. Plummer is respectful towards everyone with whom she interacts, including players. When she started coaching the Proteas, she banned cliques in her team. This included players grouping themselves according to race.

‘World’s best coach’

“Norma’s a phenomenal woman. She makes you believe in yourself. And her knowledge of netball is out of this world, very practical and specific with the types of training or the things she wants us to achieve,” wrote Proteas vice-captain Karla Pretorius for Australian sports storytelling platform PlayersVoice

“Norma creates an environment. She gives you so much confidence in yourself and she instills the belief that we can compete against the best.”

Pretorius describes Plummer as the world’s best coach, a sentiment shared by many as a result of her impressive CV. The Australia-born coach has two Netball World Cup (formerly Netball World Championships) titles under her belt, which she won with her native country. 

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But the titles – and there have been plenty of them at club level – aren’t the most impressive aspect of Plummer’s coaching career, it’s the work she did in rebuilding the Australian team that stands out. After losing to New Zealand in the match for gold at the Commonwealth Games in 2006, and dealing with the retirements that followed, Plummer built a team that won back the Netball World Cup the following year.

It’s to be hoped this is where she will leave the Proteas after the upcoming World Cup, with a solid foundation for the house she has been building with them, developing both players and future coaches. A higher International Netball Federation (INF) ranking than the fifth place South Africa has been occupying and maybe even a medal for the first time since 1995, when the Proteas finished as runners-up, would be a fitting finale for the woman who has taken South African netball to new heights.

Under Plummer’s leadership, South Africa has had up to eight players competing in the top three netball leagues in the world. Australia leads the pack, followed by England and New Zealand, where South Africans are making a name for themselves. 

Proteas captain Bongiwe Msomi has played in two of those leagues, in Australia and now England, although her club, Wasps, lost the Vitality Super League title to Manchester Thunder who denied them a hattrick of successive championships.

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Phumza Maweni, Shadine van der Merwe, Lenize Potgieter, Karla Mostert and Sigrid Burger are some of the Spar Proteas players who have graduated to these professional leagues. Plummer’s passion for players’ development is clearly visible when she talks about it; her eyes light up.

“The players have realised that they are as good as anyone in the world. I love it when I see them transform from the training session and then they produce that on court. They can take it up to any team or against any player, they are just as good,” she said.

Breaking the sixth-place shackles

The South African senior side had been struggling to move from the sixth position in the world for a number of years as rivals, Malawi, always made a meal of the Proteas at the World Cup. Moving a spot up on the INF rankings in 2015 was a start for Plummer in turning the Proteas into a powerhouse in the continent. But she is not yet done.

“If we can crack the top four at the World Champs, that would be a massive bonus. We have grown so much, and the players have learnt not to take a step back now, I am really hopeful that we can get into the four,” she said.

“Everybody is putting a lot on the players, but I don’t want to bring that into it. We’ll just be working on our own game, taking it day by day. At that stage, you don’t want to get ahead of yourself. It’s important to do it the right way.”

The Proteas will draw more attention than usual at this year’s global competition. That attention will not only come from having beaten England and coming close to getting the better of New Zealand in the Quad Series but also because South Africa was awarded the rights to host the INF Netball World Cup 2023, which has a lot of people taking notice of netball in the country.

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The Aussie believes so completely in South Africa’s talent that she suggested that if Netball SA could develop a fully fledged professional league, it would be easy to import players from around the world to come and ply their trade in the country. Her native country attracts players from all over the world to take part in the Suncorp Super Netball League.

“Every game in the Suncorp League looks like a grand final. That is what’s got to be produced here. [President of Netball SA] Cecilia [Molokwane] seems to be doing a good job. They have got to get a league going. Of course, you have got to have a sponsor to run it, like Suncorp is the sponsor for the Australian national league. They have to have a sponsor like that, that will put in the money. Between now and the World Cup, that would be the way to go,” she said.

Leaving behind a solid foundation  

Plummer has developed the team’s fighting spirit, encouraging her players to push hard and challenge the world’s top teams. This winning attitude can be seen in the players’ body language. The Spar Proteas’ goalkeeper is one such player. Maweni has grown from a woman of few words in interviews into a confident player who tells her story with just as much confidence.

It’s not only the players who have benefitted from her presence in the country. During her time in South Africa, Plummer has run clinics with the country’s top coaches to prepare Netball SA for the day she and assistant coach Nicole Cusack head back to Australia.

The Proteas bench has changed several times during Plummer’s tenure to give coaches such as Dumisani Chauke, Jenny van Dyk, Zanele Mdodana and Dorette Badenhorst a chance to work side by side with her. The Australian said she has given these coaches a set of skills that will help them grow. 

Badenhorst got the chance to test those skills with the Spar Smileys, a team made up of South Africa-based players, during the Telkom Netball League, which the Gauteng Jaguars won recently for the third time in a row.

“At some stage, somebody has to take over. I can do some mentoring for them, but at this stage we haven’t gone into discussions about it. I don’t think I will have to recommend [who should take over], I think they already have a list. In the end, it has to be someone who wants it.”

That person will have to build on Plummer’s foundation while she finally gets to enjoy her retirement in a home that’s nearing completion. 

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