The first Noeline: Taurua

Our sporting hero Coach plays down her role in the remarkable transformation of the Silver Ferns, writes Cheree Kinnear

She pulled off one of New Zealand sport's greatest comebacks but Silver Ferns head coach Noeline Taurua is hesitant about taking credit.

In fact, she's "somewhat embarrassed" to be crowned the New Zealand Herald Sports Hero of the Year.

"Personally, it doesn't sit well," Taurua says. "It's very humbling that I'm acknowledged in that way or even seen in that light."

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Given how extraordinary and obvious her impact was, it's perhaps difficult to understand how Taurua is caught off-guard.

She was recruited by Netball New Zealand to take over the Ferns in late 2018 following then-head coach Janine Southby's resignation.

Under Southby's reign, the Ferns had won just six of 18 games, including 11 straight losses to Australia. They fell to their worst ever Commonwealth Games result and suffered historic losses to Jamaica and Malawi just 15 months out from the Netball World Cup.

The Ferns' future looked grim, and of the three sporting World Cups New Zealand teams were set to contest this year, the netball version was the one most overlooked.

Fans were accepting of how little time the Ferns — and Taurua — had to rebuild. A World Cup win was a far-fetched dream.

But not for Taurua, determined to turn a team lacking direction, confidence and leadership into world champions.

Taurua insists the timing of her appointment was a key factor in her side's success.

"Sometimes the timing and everybody going in the right direction helps," she says.

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"Because our Commonwealth Games and us as a sport really hit the bottom of the bottom, not only as a team but a whole organisation, the only way was up and the timing of that is really crucial.

"If it were another time, I know as they say as a coach that it can be so fickle, and as good as the days are sometimes, I know it can swing really fast where you're not as successful as previously."

The humble coach admits she missed much of the hype around the Silver Ferns' win due to her return to Australia straight after the World Cup final.

She says it wasn't until returning to New Zealand for the team's Parliamentary reception in August that the enormity of their achievement hit home.

"I probably missed quite a lot of the reaction to what we had done but now that I'm heading back and have been back more, I get the gist just from people who talk in the streets to me, commenting on how amazing the team were," Taurua says.

"To some degree, I missed that by being over [in Australia] ... but I think the performance was something that not only us within the team but a lot of people felt proud of as well."

Taurua has since returned to New Zealand with her family following a three-year stint in Australia, where she coached the Sunshine Coast Lightning.

She's spending the next few days in Nelson at the Super Club tournament to watch New Zealand's domestic teams go head-to-head against each other and also the Collingwood Magpies from Melbourne and the Coventry-based Wasps.

The tournament doubles as a trial event, with Taurua set to name the Silver Ferns' Nations Cup squad next week.

Her decision, however, on whether to remain head coach beyond January's campaign is something she still ponders. But if there's one thing she's sure of, it's that when she steps down, she will have left the Ferns in a better place.

"At the moment, it couldn't be any better in regards to being world champs and also being competitive once again with Australia.

"I feel overall the whole profile, there's so many positives and things around the Silver Ferns and netball at the moment and I think overall it's fantastic to know I've been part of that.

"Netball is in my blood and I've been involved in the sport for so long, even though I question myself to what else I can possibly do.

"Irrelevant of what role I play within Netball New Zealand, or any other netball organisation, I'll still be involved.

"Once you're in there, you pretty much can't get out."

Israel Adesanya

Robert Whittaker of Australia and Israel Adesanya of New Zealand during UFC 243 at Marvel stadium Melbourne Australia. Photo / Photosport.co.nz
Robert Whittaker of Australia and Israel Adesanya of New Zealand during UFC 243 at Marvel stadium Melbourne Australia. Photo / Photosport.co.nz

Adesanya's rapid rise as an MMA star hit a crescendo in Melbourne where he claimed the middleweight title before 60,000 fans at UFC 243.

The pundits who had been raving about the 30-year-old Nigerian — who came to New Zealand aged 12 — were proved right in emphatic fashion when he knocked out Robert Whittaker to become the undisputed champ.

The lanky Adesanya is now a contender as New Zealand's most recognisable international sporting sensation, even if it is in an arena which remains foreign territory to more traditional sports fans.

His popularity can easily be measured by the new-age barometer of Instagram, where he has 1.9 million followers and rising.

But the Aucklander is also moving UFC further into the mainstream. You can spot him in the social pages and on the red carpet and his gigs this year included presenting The Beths with Best Group at the New Zealand Music Awards.

He's a man who seems comfortable in the spotlight, with a natural flamboyance made for combat promotions and at odds with the conservative Kiwi sporting traditions.

"It feels like I'm still lucid dreaming," he said after beating Whittaker.

"This fight is my show ... who else, on this kind of stage, is going to do that before they go in and whoop some ass? If I could sing, trust me — Justin Bieber wouldn't even have a job. There's no one like me. No one."

But he also appears to have his feet on the ground, saying after the victory over Whittaker that he knew it was tougher staying at the top than getting there.

It has been a great year but the best is almost certainly to come.

The Black Caps

The World Cup cricket final at Lord's will never be forgotten. It was a match of wonderful drama and controversy ending with England — somehow — beating New Zealand.

The Black Caps' semifinal victory over India should not be forgotten though, because it formed a major part of this wonderful cricket ride.

New Zealand is still without a World Cup victory, but there was a wonderful and unlikely glow to their 2019 campaign.

New Zealand's charge into the 2015 final had brought the country to its feet. That was a tough act to follow, the Black Caps not overly fancied playing away from home, and the time difference with England reducing the audience.

But the tournament and New Zealand came up trumps. A run of three losses were forgotten as they edged out tournament favourites India at Old Trafford over two days, the first having been curtailed by rain.

Martin Guptill's brilliant run out of MS Dhoni and a stunning Jimmy Neesham gully catch off Dinesh Karthik were among the highlights as New Zealand won a place in the final.

The final had everything. A bizarre four overthrows off Ben Stokes' bat kept England in the game, and a tiebreaking Super Over was needed. It was sensational sport and many cricket observers declared this the finest one day game ever.

The overthrows off Stokes bat were contentious, as was the boundary countback system used to set the Super Over target. There were calls for the trophy to be shared.

New Zealand, with a reputation for trying to restore cricket's reputation, took the disappointment well.

Captain Kane Williamson said: "There were so many other bits and pieces to that game that were so important. When it comes down to a tie, you start looking at every single delivery, don't you?

"It was a pretty tough pill to swallow (but) one of those things."

Sonny Bill Williams

Sonny Bill Williams. Photo / Photosport.co.nz
Sonny Bill Williams. Photo / Photosport.co.nz

Perhaps the most polarising figure in New Zealand sports history became a symbol of unity following the mosque terror attack in Christchurch.

SBW had prayed at the Al Noor Mosque, the main target of the attack, when he played for the Crusaders.

Taking leave from the Blues, he headed to Christchurch to help comfort his fellow Muslims, initially attending a Friday prayer with thousands of others in Hagley Park.

He spent time with a victim's brother, and spoke against right wing extremism and the stereotyping of Islam.

"Unity, peace and love: the core message of what Islam is," SBW said.

He told the BBC last month: "Being one of the highest profile Muslims in New Zealand ... I knew that it was my duty.

"I'm a pretty shy guy (but) I stepped up. I represented not just the Muslim community that was hurting but also the New Zealand community. I wanted to preach that positivity ... what can we do to move forward in a better way? As New Zealanders we've done that."

Rugby-wise it was not a great year for the big inside back who had a bench role in the All Black side which crashed out of the World Cup against England.

But his career, involving rugby, league and boxing, is never short on surprises. At the age of 34, he made more history earning a reported $10m deal with the European Super League's Toronto Wolfpack.

The two-year contract makes him the highest paid player in league or rugby by some stretch, as the Wolfpack use his profile to crack a non-league market. Sonny Bill Williams left New Zealand rugby with two World Cup wins.

But 2019 will be known as a year in which his greatest work was off the field.

Alice Robinson

Alice Robinson from New Zealand. Photo / Photosport.co.nz
Alice Robinson from New Zealand. Photo / Photosport.co.nz

Competitive skiing is not a big sport in New Zealand, which is a long way from the most famous venues, and Kiwi headline acts are few.

Names like Annelise Coberger and Claudia Riegler can pop up in the memory, but there are many years in which skiing slid completely out of view.

Alice Robinson may be about to change that.

The schoolgirl skier, who has just turned 18, had an amazing start to the year with ground breaking performances in Europe announcing New Zealand had uncovered a new world star in a niche Kiwi sport.

But it was the opening to the 2019-20 season which confirmed that Robinson — from Queenstown — is something special.

In Austria, she beat American ski superstar Mikaela Shiffrin in the giant slalom to claim New Zealand's second World Cup race victory after Riegler's breakthrough over 20 years ago.

"I thought like, 'Oh, it could happen', but it was not in my head. To win is pretty crazy," she said.

Her earlier victories included the world junior giant slalom title and a World Cup final silver medal behind Shiffrin, a performance which won her worldwide attention.

Along the way Robinson has maintained excellent school grades, dealt with a change in coach, and coped with logistical tasks which competitors from bigger countries are spared. She said equipment tweaks have assisted her rise, including new boots and softer skis.

Robinson wants to develop her prowess in the Super G, to give her another string to the bow.

When asked what the long term goals are, she said: "To get right to the top ... medals in multiple disciplines in World Cups, Olympics, world championships. I don't want to have only one goal in mind.''