PRIMED FOR WORLD CUP
Proteas’ Shadine van der Merwe has bounced through ups and downs to reach netball’s pinnacle
Versatile Proteas defender Shadine van der Merwe nearly gave up netball for the oval rugby ball, but is now an integral part of the Proteas’ World Cup squad.
Six years ago, Proteas netball defender Shadine van der Merwe was thinking of making a switch to sevens rugby because she couldn’t secure her place in the national squad after struggling to recover her form after an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury.
But an inspired decision to give netball one last shot in December 2017 changed everything for Van der Merwe. She now has 66 national team caps and is one of only five players selected for this year’s World Cup who also represented the country in the previous edition in England in 2019, when South Africa finished fourth.
Van der Merwe has also represented South Africa at two Commonwealth Games — at the Gold Coast in 2018 and last year at Birmingham, where South Africa finished fifth and sixth, respectively.
The road to the top has always meandered for the 30-year-old.
“During my school years I never got selected for provincial colours except for my last year when I was Grade 11 — that was the last year I could get Gauteng colours,” Van der Merwe told Daily Maverick.
“During that tournament, I wasn’t selected to go through for trials for SA colours — I was actually the only player from my team that did not get selected to go for SA trials.
“So at that stage, I didn’t think I’d ever play for South Africa.”
But Jenny van Dyk, the head of programme at TuksNetball at the University of Pretoria, scouted Van der Merwe at one of her high school matches and offered her a bursary to study and play at the university.
“I felt that that was the first time somebody saw my potential. Coach Jenny van Dyk took me under her wing and I went to Tuks.”
Van der Merwe made the SA under-21 team and competed at the Junior World Cup and eventually made her senior debut in 2015, but was left out of the World Cup squad that same year.
When she arrived back at the University of Pretoria, her World Cup disappointment soon turned to joy when she was made captain of the Tuks team. But in her first match during the Varsity Cup season, she suffered a season-ending ACL injury.
Hard work, many hours in the gym and doing extra training on the court means that Van der Merwe is currently irreplaceable at the heart of the South African defence.
Van der Merwe is currently plying her trade in England, running out for Manchester Thunder alongside compatriot Lenize Potgieter.
“For myself, just being able to train with the best and play against some of the best is just great and also great for me to gain that experience as well,” Van der Merwe explained.
“Not taking anything away from the Telkom Netball League [in South Africa], but over in the UK, the season is basically semi-professional.
“It’s still not professional yet, where we still have to wait for training or we’ll train at eight at night, where some of the girls still have full-time jobs.”
The Telkom Netball League season started in April before a month-long break in May, then resumed with fixtures throughout June and the final day of matches on 1 July. There are 12 teams, split into two divisions, in the Telkom Netball League.
By comparison, the season in England runs from February to June with only one match per week.
“It’s continuous; we are 10 teams in the league, and you play them twice, one at home and one away,” Van der Merwe explained.
“That gives you the opportunity to train more and play more because you only play one game each weekend while some weekends — maybe one or two weekends — there will be a bumper weekend (with two or three matches), but it’s not like you play too many games.
“We’ll play the season over a few months instead of just a few weeks, so that gives you the opportunity to reflect after each game, go back to training, and train what you will come up against in the following game.”
World Cup announcement
Netball South Africa’s president, Cecilia Molokwane, announced the World Cup squad — for South Africa’s first World Cup on home soil — on national television on 19 May.
While 11 of the 15 members of the squad were present at the announcement, those playing overseas, such as Van der Merwe, had no idea whether they had made the squad. In fact, Van der Merwe was on court for Manchester Thunder during the announcement.
“Firstly, just hearing the announcement that you are in the [World Cup] squad is such a privilege and the fact that you worked hard and it’s always an honour to represent your country,” Van der Merwe said.
“Also, the fact that it’s hosted in South Africa is just an extra bonus and it’s just an extra warm feeling because you can have your friends and family there supporting you.
“[But] it was a bit anticlimactic when the team was named because we weren’t part of the announcement and also how they did that was a bit unprofessional for me, just speaking for myself.
“Some of the girls over here [in England] were still playing… the girls didn’t know who was in [the squad] because it was only done live. It was just a bit much.
“In future, if they do make an announcement for such a big event, it can be done better just for the sake of the younger players.
“It was a bit of a shock, I must say. We were still playing a match while the announcement happened. Only during the match, my coach from Thunder came up to me and gave me a big hug and said, ‘Congratulations you’re in the team’ — because she saw it on Twitter.
“Leni [Lenize Potgieter] was as well, so we missed it all because we were still playing.”
Home World Cup
South Africa are ranked fifth on the World Netball rankings. Jamaica, Wales and Sri Lanka are alongside them in Pool C for the quadrennial event that starts on 28 July in Cape Town.
“I’m excited for the squad that’s been selected. I know coach Norma Plummer and the management and the coaching staff did really well picking the best players,” Van der Merwe said.
“We’ve got so much depth in South Africa, even the players that did miss out. It’s always a loss, but their time will come.
“The fact that we are a few seniors still in the squad, we have the foundation because we’re five players from the previous World Cup that’s in the same World Cup this year.”
Only Jamaica, ranked fourth, are higher than South Africa in the rankings in Pool C, so the host’s chances of progressing to the knockout rounds are good, especially in front of a roaring home crowd.
“I am super excited. It’s always such an honour to represent your country and just the fact that it’s held in South Africa, it’s just going to be a massive boost for us,” Van der Merwe said.
“Having that home ground advantage, it’s like having that eighth player for your country.” DM