Dana Johannsen

Dana Johannsen is a NZ Herald’s chief sports reporter

Netball: Captains can feel each other's pain

Casey Williams and Natalie von Bertouch compete fiercely on the court, but have recently been under an injury cloud. Photo / Getty Images
Casey Williams and Natalie von Bertouch compete fiercely on the court, but have recently been under an injury cloud. Photo / Getty Images

If anyone can empathise with Casey Williams' predicament this season, it's her Australian counterpart, Natalie von Bertouch.

The two captains are considered the best players for their sides, they're usually the first names picked in their starting line-ups, and they lead by example.

But having been hampered by injury for the past year, both are struggling for form and confidence and have to accept playing a more limited role in their teams for now.

The Australian captain was ruled out of last night's test against South Africa in Wellington as she recovers from an ankle injury she picked up early in her side's 20-goal demolition of the Ferns last weekend.

It was von Bertouch's third major setback in the past 12 months.

She sat out the end of last year's season after foot surgery.

Then a painful hand injury during the ANZ Championship meant the Adelaide Thunderbirds star could not train with her side for the last five rounds.

She had surgery immediately after the end of the transtasman league season, which resulted in her missing most of the Diamonds build-up to the Constellation Cup series.

That lack of preparation time was evident in von Bertouch's performances during Australia's 2-1 series loss to New Zealand.

Australian coach Lisa Alexander took the remarkable step of benching her captain in the second and third tests.

After working on her speed and footwork in the break following the Constellation Cup, von Bertouch appeared to be returning to her best in her first Quad Series outings.

Which is why when she went down with an ankle injury late in the first quarter of Sunday's record win over the Ferns, she looked distraught.

"I was like, 'Oh not again, are you kidding me?' " she said.

"I was a bit disappointed with my form during the Constellation Cup, so it was really frustrating not being out on the court for most of the match and building my confidence and form."

Von Bertouch is hoping the latest injury is just a minor setback and she will be back on court against England in Sunday's fifth leg of the Quad Series in Tauranga.

Alexander said she was upset for von Bertouch after the wretched year she'd had with injuries, but she was not willing to risk her against South Africa.

"I just admire Nat so much. She really had to dig deep after that Constellation series and find her confidence in herself again and she went away and did that individually and that's really hard to do," she said.

"So this ankle niggle is extremely frustrating for her, but we just need to be prudent at this time."

Von Bertouch's frustration mirrors that of Williams, who hasn't been anywhere near her best this season, but Alexander believes we are not seeing the demise of the two international captains.

She said both players had the strength of character to bounce back from the injury setbacks.

"I'm certain Casey would be totally frustrated. I don't know how she does it because normally when she is out on the court she is like an Energiser bunny. She's a terribly difficult opponent to counteract. It's a great mental challenge for both of them."

"[The mental aspect] is the big part of it and that's the bit we don't quite understand - how deep that gets."

Williams was clearly deeply disappointed by her first few outings in her international return, after a 15-month lay-off with ankle and knee problems.

But although her confidence appeared to hit rock bottom in Australia after a lacklustre outing against England in her second game back, Williams has been much chirpier this week.

After the test in Newcastle, the New Zealand captain admitted she was feeling "lost out there" andwas not up to facing Australia that weekend.

In the end, she was called off the bench to take the court against the Diamonds in Sunday's 20-goal hammering, and while hugely disappointed with the loss, she was happy to come through three quarters physically unscathed.

The star defender has participated fully in training in Wellington this week without any knee pain and believes her timing and combinations are coming back.

So too is her smile.

"I feel great, I really do," Williams beamed after the team's final training session before last night's game against the English.

Ferns coach Waimarama Taumaunu said with Williams no longer in rehabilitation mode, it was about balancing the need to manage her workload with ensuring she was given opportunities to play her way back into top form.

"We're certainly looking at having her available for all of the games," she said. "She probably won't be used for a full game, but that is about making sure players are rested and we have a fresh group for next Thursday [against Australia]."

- NZ Herald

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