Izette Griesel laughs when she chats about it. She pretty much has to. But it’s almost unfathomable that her husband, who plays casual club rugby in Pretoria, was at one stage earning more playing sport at this level than she was representing South Africa in netball, by far the largest women’s sport in the country in terms of participation.
“We always joke, me and my husband. He plays rugby, not professionally, and even he at one point got a higher salary than I did for playing netball. That was a bit frustrating thinking of the rugby players, and that was at club level. They get paid a lot to do what they do and we have to work full-time and train. Then we go and play and we don’t get anything and nobody even notices. But I am glad it’s getting better,” says the 28-year-old Proteas wing attack and centre.
Far from complaining, Griesel is all about doing it for the love of the game. Again, she has to be, as do plenty of the other national netball players who haven’t had the good fortune of being offered spots in the lucrative leagues in Australia, New Zealand and England, where they can earn a decent living.
The Tuks graduate was almost one of them, but the deal fell through at the last minute. So, she continues to work full-time as a primary school teacher while representing her country on the court.
Things are at least moving in the right direction, with the semi-professional Telkom Netball League taking place each year, plans afoot at Netball South Africa to launch a fully professional league and increasing exposure for women’s sport. For netball, one of the big turning points was last year’s World Cup in England, where the Proteas claimed a breakthrough victory over powerhouse Jamaica to reach the semifinals of the tournament.
“That was awesome. It was crazy in the change room when we beat Jamaica. Everyone just went wild. Even Norma [Plummer, then head coach], she was shouting, ‘We won!’ Everyone was shouting. I think my voice was gone that night, everyone was so happy. We knew we were in the semifinals, making history, actually,” says Griesel.
Suddenly, South Africans were starting to learn their wing attacks from their goal defences and talking about shooting percentages. It’s something Griesel noticed on her return home.
“Last year at the World Cup, the media were so good. When we came back, even the husbands and brothers and kids, everyone had been watching. In the past you didn’t get that, especially men, they didn’t really watch netball. Last year it felt like people were actually starting to watch and enjoy the sport.
“I think it was the level we played at, and Netball South Africa put a lot of thought and money and everything into raising awareness and putting it out there. It felt like even on SuperSport, everyone knew there was netball. They wouldn’t necessarily watch it, but they knew it was on. It was on Facebook and everywhere. And obviously the level we were playing at was getting better, so people actually liked to watch it. I think that sometimes in the past the sport didn’t look that great.”
Using lockdown productively
Like many sports, that momentum gained in 2019 was brought to an all-too-abrupt halt by the Covid-19 pandemic as the world went into lockdown. That didn’t stop Griesel and her Gauteng Jaguars teammates who were out in their gardens training three times a day during lockdown for a tournament – the Telkom Netball League – they weren’t even sure was happening.
“Even in level five lockdown our coach Jenny van Dyk had a training plan, even sometimes three sessions a day. And we were in our little houses, doing it on the grass and wherever we could. I think lockdown made us a little bit more committed. If you’re stuck in a house for five weeks, it’s tough to think you have to train three times a day and you run out of ideas of what to do.
“It was literally some speed drills and stuff on the grass and also a lot of gym sessions, like conditioning. We had to use whatever we could find. I even used bottles at one stage filled with water to improvise, so we were quite creative at that time.
“I think during that period we had to think long-term. Obviously at one point we didn’t even know if there was going to be netball this year, so at some point you think what am I training for? Are you training for next year? So that was a bit tough, but in the end it was definitely worth it.”
It’s just as well they did, because the Telkom Netball League did eventually go ahead. The format was condensed and it took place in a bio-bubble environment in Bloemfontein where, as a result of their intense training regimen and some genius coaching from Van Dyk, the Jaguars romped to a record fourth straight title with Griesel named Player of the Tournament.
“It was really awesome to win a fourth title. That was the aim from the beginning. Some of the teams were very unfortunate with injuries, but we were lucky with that. That hard work during the lockdown with conditioning and fitness meant we were ready for that. We knew it was a lot of games and injuries were potentially part of that, so we tried our best to prevent that.
“Thirteen games in 13 days was crazy actually, if you think about it. I was personally a bit scared because that’s really a lot of games, especially coming out of lockdown, we hadn’t played for so long. But luckily it went well.”
The focus for the Proteas players soon shifted from provincial rivalries to joining forces as a national unit to take on continental archrivals Malawi in a three-Test series at Sun City, which they won by record margins. Griesel may have more than 50 caps for her country, having made her debut in 2015, but her excitement at hearing her name in the South African squad remains the same.
“Every time we have trials and they announce the team, you stress so badly. And then they announce your name, you’re so glad all over again. That feeling is there every time,” she says.
Life after Norma Plummer
A welcome return to international action after almost a year was a huge relief, considering the focus for the Proteas is very much on the next World Cup, where they aim to make a deeper run than at the previous tournament. The difference now is that they don’t have Plummer at the helm. The former coach is widely credited with the turnaround in South African netball and Griesel is quick to sing her praises as the most influential figure in her career so far.
“Just her presence and all the knowledge she’s gathered over the years. I don’t even know how to describe it, she’s just phenomenal. She knows everything. It literally feels like she knows everything so when she tells you to do something, you just do it. She made quite an impact. First of all she expected the best, even if it’s a training session … Sensational is always a word she uses and you have to aim to do your best. She’s really smart. The moves she sometimes taught us were amazing, playing to your own strength and using that. She was awesome.”
Thankfully current coach Dorette Badenhorst learnt from the best, having joined the team as an assistant under Plummer. “All the coaches have their way of doing things. She joined us when Norma was still the coach so she knows how it was done. She also learned a lot from Norma. We’re trying to take that through and focus on that. But Dorette obviously has her own coaching style and her own knowledge as well.”
That knowledge will be key in the build-up to the next World Cup, which is on home soil in Cape Town in 2023. It could make all the difference. “Playing in front of a home crowd will be awesome. That was one of the things at the previous World Cup in Liverpool, when you played England. We played them twice and both times it was so overwhelming, the crowd was going crazy.
“You know it’s going to happen, but you don’t really know how it’s going to feel in that moment, you can’t hear yourself think, it’s so loud. Imagine that from your own country cheering you on and not against you. So I think it would have a really good influence and will help us a lot.”
As for what the Proteas might be able to achieve in 2023, Griesel is adamant. “I think we can win. We have to. Every World Cup we’re going higher. You have to aim for the stars. We need to aim for going for gold.
“I think a lot of things still need to happen for us to achieve that though. The combinations need to settle, the team can change a lot before then in the next two to three years. We also need to work on the game plan and how we play under a new coach. We need to find our own rhythm.”
For now, Griesel will go about the daily grind, waking up before sunrise and getting back after dark, because the bills need to be paid.
“It gets quite hectic sometimes. Now there’s not a lot of extracurricular activities at school because of Covid-19, so there’s a bit more time. Usually it gets quite tough, from one appointment to the next, from training to coaching after school, to gym, then back to training. Usually leaving before the sun is up and arriving home after the sun is down, but if you work for something, you have to do it because it’s important.
“I just realised again during this tournament what I love about the sport. When I am on the netball court I literally don’t think about anything else, nothing. No school, no anything. It feels like it’s the only place where that happens. It’s just ball, ball, ball and there’s nothing else to think about. You’re in another world.”
Hopefully one day soon, that world will also be a place where she can gain some financial reward for all the sacrifices she’s made along the way.