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Southern Steel shooter Donna Wilkins' brilliant comeback season has ended with a decision not to play for the franchise again.
Wilkins, a heroine in Southland, has told the Steel she will not be returning next season, indicating she has been unhappy with the support she received from the franchise.
The veteran of 64 Silver Ferns tests returned to top netball this season after the birth of her son Cooper in November.
Her return proved vital to the Steel's changing fortunes this year, the inspirational shooter leading her side to their maiden finals appearance in the transtasman league.
Wilkins will not be the Steel's only loss. Adine Wilson has also indicated she will not be back next year as she is expecting her second child. Her husband, Jeff, is assistant coach of North Harbour rugby this season, meaning a move north.
On the surface it appeared to be a near-fairytale comeback for Wilkins, but she said she had found it exceptionally tough.
"This season for a number of reasons hasn't gone to plan, so at this stage I won't be pulling on a bib again."
Cooper, who was barely 4 months old when Wilkins took the court in the Steel's opening match, travelled with his mum all season. Wilkins said this caused problems.
"I guess with having to take a baby around with me and people having to adapt to that, there were a whole lot of teething issues for both sides."
Combining motherhood with elite sport was always going to be tough. After racing to get back to full fitness after a difficult birth, and then breaking her arm in the pre-season, she went into the season severely underdone.
"It's quite hard coming back from having a baby and then breaking my arm. I tried to come back probably too early and only had a cast on for three weeks instead of six, just so I could play the first game."
The 31-year-old's fitness and conditioning came under the microscope in the opening round, but Wilkins found her feet and was the stand-out performer for her side in the latter stages.
She believes the early criticism was unduly harsh considering her pre-season.
"There were a few things going around this season that I thought was probably unfair, and some of that was coming from my own franchise, so I think I've silenced a lot of critics. I've been pretty pleased with my performances for the last nine games."
Wilkins said she would not make a decision on what to do next year for a couple of months.
"I might just see what's out there with both netball and basketball and what fits in with our family rather than the other way around and trying to fit in with everybody else."