Dana Johannsen is the NZ Herald's chief sports reporter

Dana Johannsen: Great athlete may not make great player

Bailey Mes. Photo / Steven McNicholl
Bailey Mes. Photo / Steven McNicholl

It was a genuine bolt from the blue. The rapid elevation of Mystics' benchwarmer Bailey Mes into the Silver Ferns netball team to face Australia next month has been rated as the biggest selection shock since Rachel Hunter was chosen to host the Halberg Awards.

So how did a player that had just 15 minutes of court time in the ANZ Championship this season, and equally limited appearances in previous years, force her way into the national team?

By all accounts Mes was extremely impressive during last week's trials. With Silver Ferns coach Waimarama Taumaunu keen to canvas all potential options in the midcourt, Mes was invited alongside a handful of other young players to trial.

What set Mes apart from the other young invitees and existing squad members Grace Rasmussen and Anna Thompson was, in Taumaunu's words, "she was one of the top few in the aerobic testing, in her standing jump and in her speed. So if you have all that in 186cm running around the midcourt, that's a major factor".

Taumaunu appears confident she can turn a great athlete into a great player. But this strategy does not always work.

Remember Larrissa Willcox? Nobody would blame you if you don't.

Willcox, who was born in New Zealand and raised in Perth, was selected in the Ferns in 2009 despite some inconsistent form for the Canterbury Tactix.

When asked about the reasons for her selection, one of the key factors highlighted was her athletic physique. She was strong, determined, and killed it on the fitness tests.

It was hoped Taumaunu, who at the time was assistant coach to Ruth Aitken, could turn Willcox into a more skilled and canny defender.

But you can't coach intuition.

Willcox went on to play two games for the Silver Ferns against a world seven selection team, but after an average 2010 season in the transtasman league she has not been heard of since.

The selection of Mes highlights a conundrum coaches in all codes have grappled with from time to time - how much value do you place on work ethic, fitness and conditioning over natural flair and ability?

When creativity and flair are often coupled with unpredictability, the hard working grafter can be seen as the safer bet.

But there are still big risks to throwing Mes into the cauldron of international netball too soon. Given the debate that has raged over her surprise elevation, there will be a lot of pressure on the youngster to prove her worth when she does take the court. If it goes badly it could be a significant setback to both the team and Mes' confidence.

But the selectors' bold call also has positive spin-offs.

Taumaunu has sent a strong message to her squad that you are never simply entitled to step into another player's shoes when spots open in the team. It is never anyone's "turn" to wear the black dress. You need to earn your place.

Mes' unlikely elevation can only help breed a competitive environ-ment in the squad, which helps build depth for pinnacle events.

As for how the new-look midcourt fares against Australia next month, perhaps a remark from Taumaunu at last week's trials is most telling. "I'm excited about the long-term - we'll see what happens in the short term."

- NZ Herald

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Dana Johannsen is the NZ Herald's chief sports reporter

Dana has more than a decade's experience in sports journalism, joining the Herald in 2007 following stints with TVNZ and RadioSport. Over that time Dana has covered several major events including the 2011 Netball World Cup in Singapore, 2011 Rugby World Cup, 2012-13 Volvo Ocean Race, and the 34th America’s Cup in San Francisco. A multi-award winning journalist, Dana was named New Zealand Sports Journalist of the Year in 2012 after scooping both the news and feature categories at the TP McLean Awards. The previous year she picked up the prize for best news break. She was also an inaugural recipient of the Sir John Wells scholarship at the 2009 NZSJA awards. Dana also writes a weekly sports column for the NZ Herald.

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