Michael Burgess

Michael Burgess is the football and rugby league writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Netball: Irene eyes next world champs

Irene van Dyk says of the young contenders for her GS bib that 'I'm not going to just give it to them'. Photo / Christine Cornege
Irene van Dyk says of the young contenders for her GS bib that 'I'm not going to just give it to them'. Photo / Christine Cornege

Irene van Dyk hopes to feature at the 2014 Commonwealth Games - and has a sneaky eye on the 2015 world championships, when she will be 43.

The veteran shooter, who will line up at Silver Ferns trials this week in Auckland, celebrated her 40th birthday in June but shows no signs of slowing down. After the Ferns lost last year's world championships final in dramatic circumstances in Singapore, it was half expected van Dyk would join Temepara George in international retirement. After all, there were some young contenders on the scene ready to step up and what more did she have to prove? At the time, many thought the 2011 Constellation Cup series would be a useful swansong, ahead of a quieter international programme this year and next.

But it turned out she had her eyes on a bigger prize: "If I think about it, the Commonwealth Games is in two years and I would love to be available for that," van Dyk told the Herald on Sunday. "The world championships is not even a year after that - it's like eight months after [the Games]. So if I keep going the way I am, I could possibly make it."

Turning out at the 2015 world championships at 43 would be a monumental achievement. There have been plenty of 40-plus cricketers and baseballers but, in more aerobic sports, you might think of Roger Milla and (in 15 months) Ryan Giggs in football, Martina Navratilova in tennis and Cliff Lyons in rugby league. In netball, Malawi's Mary Waga competed at 42 at the 2010 Commonwealth Games.

Van Dyk was the best New Zealand shooter in the recently concluded ANZ Championship. Cathrine Latu had her moments but couldn't carry her Mystics team to victory in the big games. Too often she was shut down by opposing defenders and she can still get flustered in big games.

In contrast, van Dyk, ably assisted by Julianna Naoupu, remained the go-to girl in the circle, especially in the cliffhanger matches at the end of the season against the Firebirds, Thunderbirds, Mystics (twice) and the epic final against the Vixens. International netball is another level but van Dyk still looks the best bet in the GS bib in a tight match.

Playing in Sydney in 2015 would mean getting through three more gruelling ANZ Championship seasons while somehow staying ahead of the pack at international level.

"I'm very much goal-oriented - though now it is only day by day," laughs van Dyk. "With netball, you never know. My goals are very seasonal. The first one was to help the Magic get the ANZ Championship. The next one is the Constellation Cup and after that, the Quad [Series]. I don't want to look too far ahead."

Since her milestone birthday, van Dyk has received plenty of feedback from fans and punters. Some credit her with taking "40 to a whole new level" and inspiring them to do more than they thought possible. Others are slightly less positive.

"Some people told me they never realised I was that old," laughs van Dyk. "They say - 'don't you think you should be giving the young ones a chance?"'

Her response is always the same: "If they want it that desperately, they should play better than me. Their stats should look better than mine - it's hard evidence that they need to show. It's easy really; they just need to play better than me, be more accurate than me, be fitter than me - all those kind of things, then I will be like, 'yup, you deserve it'. But I am not going to roll over and just give it to them."

Indeed, until Latu emerged, it was hard to imagine anyone else in the Ferns' GS position. Donna Wilkins was van Dyk's predecessor and since then Daneka Wipiiti, Tania Dalton, Paula Griffin and Jodi Brown all briefly donned the bib. Van Dyk has played 130 test matches (as well as 72 for South Africa) and New Zealand has not won a major championship without her since 1987.

She says her relatively late introduction to 'professional' netball, when she came to New Zealand at the age of 28, has aided her longevity.

"In South Africa, we just used to rock up and play," says van Dyk. "I might have been worn out by now if I have been doing weights and gym sessions since I was 17 or 18."

She has so far avoided serious injury and constantly refines her court movements to limit the constant contact from defenders. She is fastidious about recovery sessions, including pool work and does mountains of stretching and yoga. There might also be something in the genes; her 49-year-old sister Janita recently completed the 89km Comrades ultra-marathon in South Africa. She has also done the 110km Cape Argus race around Cape Town and across Table Mountain which counts cycling champions Miguel Indurain and Lance Armstrong as past participants.

"She is a total freak," says van Dyk of Janita. "She would put me to shame."

The sisters reunited recently for their mother's funeral, van Dyk flying back to South Africa after the ANZ Championship final in emotional circumstances.

"It was very, very hard and obviously not the ideal reason to go back," says van Dyk. "But I think the week-and-a-half delay [between her passing and the funeral] took out the raw, heartbreaking soreness of it all. It was a beautiful funeral where we all celebrated a wonderful life."

Looking ahead to the upcoming Constellation Cup, van Dyk has revenge on her mind, after last year's double blow of losing in Singapore and then failing to wrest the Constellation Cup from Australia.

"We have no reason not to be confident," says van Dyk of New Zealand's prospects. "There were two Kiwi teams in the [ANZ Championship] semifinals. Of course we can win and personally I hope we smash them."

- Herald on Sunday

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