Veteran netball coach proud of Vixen trio

Plummer products: Melbourne Vixens head coach Simone McKinnis, midcourt coach Di Honey and McKinnis’ assistant Eloise Southby-Halbish this week. Photo: Pat ScalaWhen coaching matriarch Norma Plummer looked along the Melbourne Vixens bench during a pre-season game last month, she found herself opposed to three of her former pupils – Simone McKinnis, Eloise Southby-Halbish and Di Honey. Another, Roselee Jencke, was the architect of the Queensland Firebirds’ 2011 premiership. Shades, perhaps, of Tom Hafey and his famous Punt Road coaching nursery.
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Proud? Emotional? ”Yeah, I am. I was. I’m really, really proud, really rapt, because I had all those players as kids,” says Plummer, the former Melbourne Phoenix, AIS and long-time Diamonds mentor, now overseeing the young West Coast Fever team that will play the Vixens at the new Perth Arena on Saturday. ”Simone was 14 or 15 when she turned up, and Ella was 16, and you really hope they love the game as much as you and they can give back.

”They’re all good coaches. They’re reading the game well and I think they’re doing a good job. Mind you, they’ve got a lot of experienced players to work with; the test for them would be if they had a bottom team, to see if they could take that anywhere. But I’m sure they’re learning their craft, and I think it’s the future of coaching for Australia. We can only survive at the top if we’ve got people passionate about wanting to keep us there.”

And also, she says, with elite-level experience, such as that offered by the decorated Vixens trio. Head coach McKinnis was a defensive champion of 67 Tests, including world championship and Commonwealth Games success, and her assistant Southby-Halbish a fine 36-Test shooter who won Commonwealth gold in 2002 and five national titles with the Phoenix. Honey, a specialist midcourt coach for both the Diamonds and Vixens, represented Australia from 1983-89, and was inducted as a Legend into the Netball Victoria Hall of Fame.

Thus, it was a teacher-student reunion of sorts at Royal Park in March, and the Vixens’ new team recognised the significance. ”Norma came up after the game and said ‘well done, we’ll get you next time’, sort of thing, but we were saying ‘look, all three of us came up under you’,” McKinnis recalls.

”And she got a little bit emotional, because she loves it, she loves the sport, and to see players that she’s worked with in coaching roles now, I think that’s a big deal for her, too, because she’s very much about the sport, and the development of the sport, and the development of the players that she’s had come through with her.”

While McKinnis was the first, Southby-Halbish had always seemed the most natural future coach, as a smart and famously vocal player and captain with a highly regarded netball brain. The uncompromising McKinnis way was to lead more by action and example; interestingly, Liz Ellis remarked recently that, of all her former Australian teammates, she considered the star wing defence among the least likely to swap her bib for a clipboard and witches hats.

Honey is the newest addition to the Vixens panel, McKinnis’ friend and former speedy-midcourt teammate, currently the head coach at Geelong Grammar and the Barwon Sports Academy, with experience at both local and state-league level. Collectively, the triumvirate will face Plummer’s West Coast before a crowd of more than than 8000, as the Fever attempt to extend an unbeaten 2013 home record while the fourth-placed Vixens back up from loss No.1 and will be again be without key shooter Karyn Howarth, who has been ruled out for a second consecutive week with knee soreness.

”It’ll be good. I always love catching up with Plummer, but she’ll be super-competitive,” laughs McKinnis. ”She’ll be out to kick our bums, no doubt.” Plummer: ”Why wouldn’t I be? I don’t ever go out there not trying to do that! But if we put up how many games (the Vixens) have all played to what we’ve got, they’d be wanting to kick our backsides with the experience they’ve got on that court.

”My lot are learning like mushrooms, so they can have their ups and downs as a group, but they’re getting better. I’ve only been here for 18 months and they’ve been a bottom team all the time, so it’s a lot of work to change the culture and bring them up and make them believe. Just having a crack’s not good enough, and I don’t come from that culture.”

Instead, Plummer’s roots are in Victoria, where winning is the only expectation, and to where she will eventually return when her work is done. Yet, decades later, the former Australian captain and coach of two world title-winning teams has a passion for the sport – and coaching – that is undiminished. ”I’ve never lost it,” she declares, convincingly.

Consider this exchange after West Coast’s one-goal loss to the Vixens in round 12 last year. ”I had a joke with Simone and Ella on the bench saying, ‘look out, I’m comin’ for ya!”’ says Plummer. ”They were laughing, but I’m really pleased to see them there, and they’ve got years in front of them to keep it going. I know I’m on sort of more borrowed time now, but you feel really good that they’re stepping up. That’s what you hope you pass on.”

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