Donnell Wallam should be preparing for the greatest moment of her career, but her possible Test debut threatens to be overshadowed by the high-profile sponsorship drama that has engulfed Netball Australia, writes LINDA PEARCE.
Wearing her more recent hat as a TV producer, former Australian defender Keeley Devery knows the cameras will be trained on Donnell Wallam should the reluctant face of the Hancock Prospecting sponsorship storm debut for the Diamonds tonight against England in Newcastle.
“Certainly it’s a major story,” says Devery, a past head of netball at Nine and Fox Sports with extensive broadcasting experience across multiple codes. “You’d have to be looking at it, but I would think more through a lens of concern.’’
As a retired player, the 63-Test dual world champion can only contrast the Wallam scenario with her own debut, back in 1985 against Wales in Cardiff, in the days before international broadcasts and social media – and, incidentally, just a year after Lang Hancock’s disgusting racist remarks that have brought us to where we are now.
“I have actually been thinking a bit about Donnell, thinking, ‘How the hell?’ Like, her stepping out on that court, there‘s just so much on her shoulders that I really feel for the girl, and it will certainly be a major show of strength for her just to be able to go, ‘Nuh, I’ve just got to focus on the game’,’’ Devery says.
“It probably would have been scrutinised anyway, seeing it’s been such a long time to have an Indigenous woman there, but now with all this lumped on top, I just cannot fathom what she is going through with all eyes on you.
“This will show her strength; she’s obviously made of great stuff off the court and, from what I hear, good stuff off the court, but this is an awesome load for her to carry, and it’s encouraging to hear that the players are all behind her, cos it’s just a bit of a mess, isn’t it?”
No arguments there, while noting the element of wry understatement, for what a dreadful fiasco this has been.
Amid finger-pointing, blame-shifting, anger, misinformation and distrust, a $15 million sponsorship deal has been ripped up, a respected national team has been subjected to a public pile-on for showing solidarity with one of their own, and a traditionally squeaky-clean if far-from-perfectly-run sport that relies so much on its sturdy grassroots base is fractured like never before.
As for Wallam, the 28-year-old Noongar woman only made her Super Netball debut this season after taking a circuitous route from her regional WA home to the Leeds Rhinos in the UK before being signed as a late replacement for the pregnant Romelda Aiken-George at the Queensland Firebirds.
Selected as a travelling reserve for the Birmingham Commonwealth Games team was thrilling enough; the email confirming the exciting shooter’s place in the 14 for the three-Test series against the Roses has left her poised to become Australia’s first Indigenous representative since Sharon Finnan-White in 2000.
Wallam’s former coach at the Firebirds, Megan Anderson, never doubted the day would come.
“Donnell is one of those once in a lifetime players. I mean her talent just smacks you between the eyes when you see her play for the first time. But it’s her humility, genuineness and absolute passion to be her best for the team that sets her apart,” Anderson says.
“She showed such a strength of character to move across the country for a ‘trial’ before SSN 2022. To see her grow, take on the challenges and embrace life in another state and in a high performance environment for the first time was magical to see unfold, and I can’t wait to watch her continue to shine at international level.”
Yet this is not the happy game-day scenario anyone could have envisaged. If Wallam is in a fit mental state to play, then should she, in the interests of everyone, be able to move on?
Or would it be best to give Wallam, cruelly linked to the “GoWokeGoBroke” hashtag, a few more days to deal with all that has transpired — including her eventual agreement to wear the Hancock logo to end the stand-off, only for Gina Rinehart to pull the plug the following day, anyway — and wait until game two on Sunday?
“That is such a tough call — that is why I would never be a coach!” says Devery with a laugh. “Oh my God, what would you do?”
Sharon Finnan-White, the most recent of just two previous First Nations Diamonds, expects Wallam to play.
“I just think ‘why wouldn’t you?’ She’s such a target on court,” she says.
“I would start her and get her out there just so she can forget about everything that’s been happening over the past few weeks. Just get her on court to do what she does best.”
Long-time Diamond Caitlin Thwaites, who retired in 2019 with 55 caps, plus World Cup and Commonwealth Games gold, has a slightly different take: name the newcomer on the bench rather than in the starting seven.
“I think the moment of the anthem and all of that will be quite emotional for her, and the warm-up and feeling all of those things; the weight and the pressure,” Thwaites says.
“But I would as a coach be looking for an opportunity to inject her into the game in that first game.”
It’s complicated, though. Of course it is.
“The debut should be purely about the game and the 60 minutes and all those things, but we completely know and can understand that that’s not just what it’s about, and that’s where what a debut to me shouldn’t be about trying to pick a moment to, ‘Get it over with’,” says Thwaites.
“It should be, ‘We’re getting out there and we’re wanting to relish and enjoy and embrace every single moment’. It shouldn’t be something that just because of all the media that it will attract, that we’re trying to ‘get it done’.”
Slipping on the gold dress for the first time is meant to be a joyous occasion. Think Amy Parmenter just two weeks ago standing on the transverse line in Auckland to sing the anthem, arms around her teammates, tears in her eyes on becoming Diamond No.185.
Thwaites gets a bit choked-up, too, just talking about the Wallam situation, having reflected before speaking to CODE Sports on what a debut should be. And what it shouldn’t.
She cherishes her own, in 2012 against New Zealand in Wellington, where she had lived for three years while representing the Pulse. In the likely event Wallam’s comes during the next eight days, the circumstances will be very different.
“To me, what a debut should be is feeling a huge sense of pride of being able to represent your country, a huge sense of pride for your family, and Donnell for her mob, from where she’s come from, the fact that she gets to be out there and representing all that she represents,” Thwaites says.
“What it should be is the nerves and anticipation of what’s about to come. It should be about feeling supported, it should be a celebration, it should be about knowing that your sisters have got your back, and the Sisters in Arms trademark is all about that moment of standing on the line — it doesn’t matter where you’ve come from.
“It should be all of the hardships that have taken you to get to that moment, knowing that all of the girls that are standing beside you have got your back when you’re going out there.
“And given the context of what’s happened in the last couple of weeks, I really hope that Donnell feels that sense that the girls beside her have absolutely got her back, because it’s a huge thing for your confidence to get out there and know that those you’re stepping out there with are 100 per cent behind you.”
What it shouldn’t be, adds Thwaites, is a lot of what this is: shouldering not only the heaviest burden from the sponsorship debacle, but of being just the third First Nations Australian Netballer in 85 years.
“It shouldn’t be about those things, but the reality is that it will be and so that sense of weight that she will carry, I really hope that the rest of the girls that are out there… I’m getting emotional talking about it… try to lift and carry as much of the weight as they can for her.”
According to Thwaites, that would ideally be with captain Liz Watson and her deputy Steph Wood alongside the first-gamer in attack, although, curiously, both leaders have been rested for this series. Paige Hadley and Courtney Bruce will fill in.
Finnan-White sent a letter of apology to Watson and the entire Diamonds squad last week following comments she made after being told, erroneously, that Wallam had been abandoned by her teammates over a situation that has also cost Netball WA and West Coast Fever an associated deal with Hancock subsidiary Roy Hill.
“There’s so much misinformation and different stories flying around, that when I heard that the Diamonds were turning their back on Donnell, I publicly made a statement against the Diamonds which I now wholeheartedly retract,” says Finnan-White, a member of NA’s Indigenous Advisory Committee.
“I’ve apologised to Liz and the Diamonds team for any harm or hurt that I may have caused and I have since found out that they 100 per cent stand by Donnell and I have thanked them for that and I have commended them for that and I have told them that with this stance they are making, this is helping to change the way First Nation issues and athletes will be regarded in the future.”
A slightly gun shy and weary-sounding Finnan-White is adamant that all of this could have been avoided had the matter been properly dealt with when the Hancock Deal was done, but also expressed her gratification to Watson et al for the support they have shown and the talk they have bravely walked.
“I told them how proud I was of Donnell and the team for sticking up for this issue, and also for standing by their Sisters in Arms legacy, which is they’re all in it together, and one-in, all-in kind of attitude,” says the 20-Test former defender.
“I told them that they’re actually creating change in this space and this is something that I’ve been busting my butt over the past 30 years to try to create change in netball for our First Nations peoples.
“The power of a collective voice can never be underestimated, and we as Indigenous people need allies on our side and the Diamonds have just stood up as a strong ally for our people in what they’re doing, and I want them to feel proud of it.”
When Finnan-White has texted Wallam recently, she’s received an emoji in reply. Which is plenty.
“I just want her to know I’m there if she needs me, and when I get the little love heart that makes me happy. So, yeah, she’s OK, and I am sure she just wants to get on with playing for her country and making her family and community proud.”
The backlash has been vicious, though, and Devery, who had to call her parents on a landline from Cardiff to tell them she had made it onto the court that first time, 37 years ago, has been appalled by some of the “vile” social media commentary that she doubts Wallam will have been able to avoid.
“She’d have to be painfully aware of what’s being said about her, so that’s probably where I’d be concerned, too.”
If there are more than 15 million reasons why Wallam’s debut, if and when it comes, will be like no other, then the significance of Marcia Ella and Finnan-White having belated company in the First Nations netball club should not be discounted.
Yet the fact that the likely international entrance of Diamond No.189 will be about so much more than the netball she plays “almost makes me feel a broader sense of sadness, that this is what’s going to happen,” says Thwaites.
“That’s something that, as a sport, there’s still a hell of a long way to go until we get to a point where having a debut for Indigenous athletes will just be about what a debut should be.”
Still, if the value of Netball Australia’s much-trumpeted Declaration of Commitment has seemed closer to cubic zirconia than a rare Argyle pink during the worst elements of all this, then Finnan-White still expects to spill a few tears when the moment arrives, 22 years after she last wore the Australian uniform.
“Even just thinking about it now, it’s emotional. People need to remember that it’s been a very long time since I retired and we’ve had another player, and it’s a big deal for our people, it’s a big deal for all the young Indigenous kids sitting there watching,” she says.
“It instils that pride and that sense of anything’s possible, so we need that visibility of our role models to aspire to, so it’s a very emotional time for me and I’m sure it will be for Donnell.
“But she’s so culturally strong and she has her strong beliefs, and I think she’ll just carry that with her onto the court. Yes, she’ll be emotional, but I don’t think that’s gonna impact her playing performance.”
A finalist in the 2021 Harry Gordon Australian Sports Journalist of the Year Award, Linda Pearce is a Melbourne-based sportswriter with more than three decades experience across newspapers, magazines and digital media, including 23 years at The Age. One of the first women in Australia to cover VFL/AFL and cricket, she has won media awards across a range of sports – including internationally, as the recipient of the ATP’s 2015 Ron Bookman Media Excellence Award. A tennis specialist who has reported from over 50 major tournaments, including 13 Wimbledons, Linda has also covered two Olympic and two Commonwealth Games, plus multiple world championships in gymnastics and aquatics and five Netball World Cups.
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