“So you’re stalking us?!”
To be honest, it wasn’t the sort of reaction I’d hoped to hear from netballing royalty Irene van Dyk, but the instant laughter from the lofty shooter and fits of giggles from her surrounding teammates offered a pretty immediate assurance that she was having a laugh at our expense.
It was a laugh we’d hear a lot over the next two days.
Cameraman Billy Paine and I were travelling to Melbourne with the Magic as they prepared to contest the final of the ANZ Championships. In four years, they had reached the playoffs three times, but never managed to clinch the title.
A powhiri at Melbourne Airport seemed to surprise the team. I asked Irene if they’d received one before. They hadn’t, so this was immensely special, perhaps a portent that something else special lay ahead.
Together we picked up our rental cars. Or rather, rental car, and rental vans. Irene and star defender Leanna de Bruin were two of the nominated drivers... maybe something to do with how many of this young team are still under 25. We arrived at the hotel well in advance of the team in their two minivans, and were warmly welcomed by Magic CEO Sheryl Dawson, who was in a good mood, despite her “troublesome lot” turning up to the hotel almost an hour late.
Over two days we saw a lot of the players, and despite the inopportune times I was asking them for quick interviews - breakfast, the end of press conferences, hotel corridors - they always smiled, always obliged. It was easy to see why they are adored by fans
Ordinarily on game day, teams are pretty much off-limits, but there we were at 7:00am as Laura Langman and Elias Shadrock – the early birds - tucked into toast and cereal.
Before long the whole team was down there, wishing each other good morning, joking around, and Jess Tuki loudly, triumphantly, realising that there was porridge on offer.
Six hours before the final of the ANZ Championships, and the Magic were happy for us to chat to the players about their favoured breakfast choices should we want to. It was incredibly forthcoming, from a team that, despite their successes and the task at hand, remained humble and approachable.
The atmosphere was still light and lively. We saw Leanna de Bruin in the lift, smiling, chirpy; she said she had no butterflies... yet. We were told it’s only once they get to walk-through that the silence and concentration takes hold... getting into the right frame of mind before entering that arena, to be met by the roar of fans.
Oh, the fans.
Perhaps 400 Magic fans were present at Hisense Arena, a cauldron of pressure, and even among 10,000 fans dressed in blue and green and yelling for the team from Melbourne, they made themselves known.
Before the game, during the game, after the game, they cheered, they danced, they let the Magic know, that they weren’t alone.
It was support the team were grateful for, made clear by the time they spent meeting and greeting after their famous 41-38 win.
For an hour after the game the fans waited to greet the team, and despite all their other requirements, the players happily obliged. Casey Williams, the defensive colossus, running around barefoot, having discarded her shoes somewhere along the way.
Hugs, photos, smiles, more laughter.
The laughter echoed down the hallways as we waited at the post-match press conference. In a show of support and solidarity the whole team filed into the media room. Shooter Julianna Naoupu’s head barely poked above the table, Irene had folded her long legs beneath her on the floor. Laura Langman spoke of receiving the tournament MVP. “I certainly couldn't do it without my counterparts so really I think it goes to my team, we were MVP of the year.”
More laughter there... that was a corny comment, but a genuine one, and the team knows it.
Then again, announcing their arrival at the after-match, where they had invited not just friends and family and fans, but us. The laughter bounced up the escalator before the team did. Laura Langman was beaming, imploring us to have some pizza. Coach Noelene Taurua, looked content and relieved. I asked her if she could now relax for a bit. Yes, she said, for a couple of days, and then she’d start planning for next year.
The bar was alive, and happy, and every once in a while the joyous laugh of Irene van Dyk would rise above the noise. The Waikato Bay of Plenty Magic, 2012 ANZ Championship winners.
We left them to it as the singing started. We’d been warmly welcomed, but it was time to let the team celebrate amongst themselves.
After all, no-one wants to be a stalker.