Sport

NETBALL

From fringe player to superstar: Proteas goal attack Nichole Taljaard was born for the big moment

From fringe player to superstar: Proteas goal attack Nichole Taljaard was born for the big moment
Nichole Taljaard (with the ball) of South Africa was one of the finds of the recent Netball World Cup held in Cape Town. (Photo: Shaun Roy / Gallo Images / Netball World Cup 2023)

Nichole Taljaard has quickly become a fan favourite after her heroics in the Netball World Cup, but there’s more to come from the dynamic sharpshooter.

Nichole Taljaard went into the recent Netball World Cup expecting to get a few minutes of game time in various matches to build experience.

Instead, the athletic goal attack finished the tournament as an integral member of the starting seven, and her presence on the court was immediately missed whenever she was substituted.

“I’ve always known that every opportunity I get is one that I can use to prove myself and just show the world and my coaches what I have learnt and what I can apply to the game,” Taljaard told Daily Maverick.

“No one in the team is selected to play the same role in each position, and I feel maybe just for this tournament something that I brought to court was what was needed.

“Maybe in every other tournament to come, it would differ and it might be a difference between myself and Elmerè [van der Berg] or whatever goal attack we get in.

“I just absorbed everything the coaches said to me and tried to do it on court, and just show to them what I can do and that I am coachable.

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Nichole Taljaard signs autographs for fans at the Netball World Cup 2023 in Cape Town. (Photo: Misha Jordaan / Gallo Images / Netball World Cup 2023)

“Maybe it did turn out well in my favour… after that, I was given more opportunity to play, which is always amazing.”

Taljaard’s quick feet, excellent evasive skills and ability to get difficult passes into dangerous areas through no-look passes quickly made her one of the first names on coach Norma Plummer’s team sheet as the World Cup progressed.

South Africa eventually finished sixth in the tournament.

“I know I’m used for my speed and [my] decision-making and – I don’t know how to say… [being a bit of a] show pony, but also how I use the ball and for my fakes and bringing something different to the game,” she said modestly.

The last-second goal Taljaard scored against 2019 Netball World Cup champions New Zealand in the second preliminary stage, to tie the game 48-48 – and keep the Proteas’ hopes alive in the 2023 edition – will be etched in the memory of every South African fan who witnessed it.

That moment, along with her exciting style of play throughout the tournament, has quickly made Taljaard a fan favourite.

“I’m used to not being noticed and being very in my shell and staying at home… I don’t get out a lot, but we went places and I thought, you know what, everyone’s gonna know Bongi’s [Msomi] name and everyone’s gonna know Phumza [Maweni] and Karla’s [Pretorius] name,” Taljaard said.

“But I obviously don’t expect anyone to know my name, and I was honestly nearly in tears with the number of people who were shouting my name and knew who I was.

“It was wonderful. It gave me goosebumps every single game. One of the games, I was so overwhelmed with hearing my name that I didn’t want to leave at all.”

Picking up the ball

Taljaard was destined to start playing netball, having passed the ribbed ball as a five-year-old for the first time, following in the footsteps of her older sister and encouraged by her parents, but the road to the top wasn’t easy.

“In my netball journey there have been disappointments, but the dream has always been bigger than the disappointments,” she said.

The year after matriculating from Stellenberg High School in the Western Cape, she was drafted into the Western Cape Southern Stings side that plays in the Telkom Netball League, as well as Stellenbosch University’s first side, where Taljaard obtained a BSc in Sports Science as well as a postgraduate certificate in education.

As an 18-year-old, Taljaard was in the South African under-21 squad preparing for the youth Netball World Cup the following year. But her short-term aspirations came tumbling down when she tore her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in a Telkom Netball League match.

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Nichole Taljaard of South Africa (Player of the Match) at the Netball World Cup 2023, Pool G match against Trinidad and Tobago. (Photo: Ashley Vlotman / Gallo Images / Netball World Cup 2023)

“That was when it was just finally picking up for me as well. I was in my first senior tournament… I won player of the match and then the game after that, I tore my ACL,” Taljaard reflected on her 12-month injury lay-off.

“But I must say, that injury was a very humbling experience for me as well because it really brought me back down to earth. Everything happened so quickly for me, that I kind of lost my head as to what my core values were and what I was moving towards… it was just going so quickly.

“One thing was happening after the other and I forgot to ground myself. They always say there’s a reason for everything when you get injured.

“And at that time, I knew exactly that’s what it was. I came home, spent a lot more time with my family and friends and grounded myself again, and got to know myself as Nichole outside of netball because my life was so involved with netball at that stage, and that was something that helped me further in my future.

“So, when I got back on the netball court, it helped me remind myself to balance my life, not just go forward with netball but to make time for friends and family… and always come back home.”

After seven years of playing varsity netball and perfecting her craft under the tutelage of Zanele Mdodana at Maties Netball, as well as captaining the Southern Stings, Taljaard was one of the 24 players contracted by Netball South Africa for the first time.

A call-up to the national team for the Commonwealth Games last year in Birmingham followed — where the Proteas also finished sixth.

“It was my first at that level against these international teams,” Taljaard said.

“From there [I] just went up, being called into the team for Diamond Challenge, Africa Cup and then Quad Series at the beginning of this year, which was one of the tournaments where I got more game time than before.

“And that was where I saw the trust of the coaches and what they wanted me to do and where they wanted me to be in my netball career.

“I feel like everything building to that, is what made me who I am in this World Cup.”

Paving a path

But the growth is not complete for the 26-year-old who has plans to continue to become the best player on court. 

Unfortunately, there is a ceiling to how far a player can develop playing locally, as the Telkom Netball League is still semi-professional, unlike leagues in Australia and New Zealand.

“My goal at the moment is to be contracted into one of the international leagues,” Tajaard said.

“I think that’s going to add a lot of experience to my netball and I’m going to learn a lot. I’ve told my fiancé I would love to do one season in England, one season in Australia and one season in New Zealand, and just be able to experience all of it, because I think all three are so different.

“In the end, I’d love to end up back in South Africa, but for that to happen there will have to be a professional league here.

“There is no place like home… there is the culture we have here, that diversity we have here. It’s just amazing… you don’t get that anywhere else in the world.

“Yes, it’s nice to go over and to learn and to improve my skills and my sport, but to be able to do that at home and be able to call that a profession would be a dream come true.”

President Cyril Ramaphosa has since committed to building South Africa’s first netball arena — the Cape Town International Convention Centre was used as a makeshift arena during the World Cup.

Despite being grateful for the growth, Taljaard believes that an arena in every province is needed to truly see growth in the most popular women’s sport in the country.

The development of the sport is a facet of the game Taljaard is particularly passionate about, and while her talents displayed on the court have undoubtedly already encouraged many to try to shoot a netball and take up the sport, she’s committed to taking it a step further.

“One of my dreams is to work with children… being able to coach and then also teach them and get them to study or help them to further their studies and their netball at the same time,” she said.

“Because in South Africa, unfortunately, if you’re not studying, you’re not in the system for netball, because you’re not getting that training – or that’s the case 80% of the time.

“I’d like to help children get as far as possible.” DM

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