Familiar faces buoy Steel coach

Southern Steel players (from left) Abby Lawson (nee Erwood), Ivari Christie, Taneisha Fifita,...
Southern Steel players (from left) Abby Lawson (nee Erwood), Ivari Christie, Taneisha Fifita, Grace Namana, Jen O’Connell and Renee Savai’inaea during their first week of preseason training in Invercargill this week. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
There is a familiar feel about this year’s Southern Steel squad — and another face has just added to it.

Jen O’Connell has joined the Steel to bolster the shooting ranks as George Fisher continues her recovery from a serious knee injury during a preseason game last year.

O’Connell, who played for the Steel from 2017 to 2020 until suffering a serious knee injury herself, joined the squad for preseason this week, saying the call up was special given it was a chapter in her career she thought had closed.

Steel coach Reinga Bloxham said Fisher had a few setbacks in her recovery and was thrilled to call on O’Connell — who played basketball for the Southern Hoiho last year — for their preseason.

"I’m really thankful that I was sort of able to call on Jen," Bloxham said.

"Although [she] was a little surprised, she’s also jumped at the opportunity and really wants to give it a good crack as well and put her best foot forward."

O’Connell will feel right at home in the Steel environment, every squad member — apart from South African defender Jeante Strydom — having suited up for the Steel previously.

That includes Silver Fern Shannon Saunders, who is a much needed addition to the midcourt, defenders Abby Lawson (nee Erwood) and Taneisha Fifita and shooter Grace Namana, who return to the fold.

Fifita was returning to elite netball after completing her missionary work in Brisbane, while Lawson had been playing in the national netball league.

"Last season I thought [Lawson] just had an absolute blinder and just really put her hand up and just reminded me of sort of what she can do," Bloxham said.

Bloxham said it was a calm and settling feeling to have so many familiar faces involved, making it easy to fall back into relationships, and draw from their experience.

Saunders, Fisher (who is back home in England), Kate and Georgia Heffernan (Silver Ferns duties) and Strydom will join the team after Waitangi Day.

Bloxham had been impressed with what she has heard of Strydom and felt she would fit into the Steel culture well.

There are high hopes for the Steel this season, after losing all 15 games last season.

Nobody knows how tough that season was more than Bloxham.

"It was tough and it knocks you down a little bit when you’re working really hard and you’re not quite getting the results that you want.

"There’s been lots of learnings in that space and also lots of rewards from a really tough season when you look at the World Cup that Kate [Heffernan] had ... and now Georgia.

"There’s always a silver lining, I suppose.

"You can’t underestimate those experiences, even though at the time they didn’t feel very great."

She was immensely proud of Georgia Heffernan, who debuted for the Silver Ferns last week, only missing three goals across her two games.

"She should be really proud of that. I know her family are proud, but we’re proud back here," Bloxham said.

"We just think that she’s done amazing.

"I just hope that she keeps thriving in that space and using those opportunities."