Covid-19 threw up a challenge for the Mystics netball team, but they found a clever way to connect with the first man to coach in the ANZ Premiership. Suzanne McFadden of LockerRoom writes. 

It’s a Monday afternoon training session for the Northern Mystics at the netball complex in Waitakere, and assistant coach Rob Wright sits precariously on a tower of suitcases on the top step of the bleachers.

If he falls, his screen will break.

Physically, Wright is at home in the Sydney suburb of Concord, where it’s pouring down outside. But virtually, he’s watching every move the Mystics make – via the internet and head coach Helene Wilson’s laptop. He has a bird’s eye view.

He’s also wired for sound, and can speak to Wilson and apprentice coach Tia Winikerei through their earpieces, offering his viewpoint as they coach the players from the sideline.

After training, Winikerei – appointed Wright’s “minder” – carries the laptop down to the centre of the on-court huddle, and the players listen to what he has to say.

This weekend, Wright will be in Ōtaki when all six ANZ Premiership teams play in the annual pre-season tournament. Well, his voice will be at least.

While it’s not the ideal scenario, it’s a quirky and innovative solution to a problem triggered by a pandemic. Wright can’t get into New Zealand until the trans-Tasman bubble opens, and that may not be in time for the start of the national league on April 18.

But in the meantime, the first male coach we’ve seen in the ANZ Premiership is forging a strong online relationship with his team and coaching colleagues.

“I’m just loving it,” he cries through the laptop. “Every day, I can’t wait to get up, go on the computer and say: ‘So what can I do today?’

“You know, it would have been easy to go, ‘Oh look, it’s all too hard, let’s pull the pin and maybe try doing it next year’. But it’s a credit to the Mystics that they wanted to find a way to make it work. I’m very thankful for that.”

Mystics captain Sulu Fitzpatrick has her own five minutes of one-on-one time – just her and the laptop – after training.

“At first it was quite weird, obviously,” the Silver Ferns defender says. “But we’re so used to Rob now, we talk to him as if he’s here.

“He’s so good. I can’t believe how much he’s able to contribute from afar, and I can only imagine what it will be like when he actually gets here.”

Fitzpatrick has witnessed Wright’s coaching as an opponent, when he coached the New South Wales Swifts to consecutive grand finals in 2015 and 2016 in the trans-Tasman ANZ Championship.

He spent the last three seasons coaching the Collingwood Magpies in the Super Netball league, but lost his job after the injury-hit Magpies had only one win last season.

So he applied for the assistant coach role at the Mystics, planning to come to Auckland for the premiership season if he got the job.

Having come out as top candidate, Wilson was looking forward to working with Wright’s elite coaching experience.

“Sulu’s comment in the [recruitment] process was” ‘I can imagine you and Rob just talking netball for hours.’ She got that right,” Wilson says. “I feel like I know Rob really well now – even though I’ve never really met him in person, only on the computer.”

If the past year dealing with Covid-19 has taught Wilson anything, it’s how to adapt, find solutions to problems quickly and see the good in every situation.

“We can’t do anything about the fact Rob’s in Australia,” she says. “So rather than moaning about it, you have to get on and figure out a way to make it work.

“It’s my nature to find a solution to a problem. Sometimes I think that gets me into trouble. You think of things outside the box and you have to convince your CEO and your board that it’s something worth trying.”

Wilson had, in fact, trialled the video coaching concept during last year’s rejigged competition, calling on the help of Gail Parata who was in Wellington (Parata is the new coach of the Pulse).

The idea excited Wright. “It’s not ideal – clearly I want to be there. But we’ve made it work pretty well,” he says.

“I have the vision through a go pro or the computer and I’m tapped into the coach’s sound. I can say what I’m seeing and we can have a chat about what’s going on.

“When I want to have a chat to the girls, we have to bring them in. And because it’s different, it’s quite engaging. They have to really focus on the screen.”

An analysis aficionado, Wright loves going over replays of games or trainings and giving instant feedback.

“I’m just sitting here on my computer waiting for someone to send me that stuff so I can get back to them. Often they’ll send me something and I’ll reply in half an hour, no matter what time it is,” he says.

Fitzpatrick has been blown away by Wright’s swift replies. “If you email him after training at 6.29pm, he will respond at 6.30pm,” she says. “His knowledge is so great; he’s so passionate about netball.

“He’s very direct, but I like it. He calls a spade a spade. He let’s us know from the computer if we’re not doing what we should be doing, even down to warm up drills. “Sometimes pre-season can be quite monotonous. But he’s quite refreshing, quite quirky. And it’s nice to hear a male perspective on the game too.”

Wright became a netball coach after being in a near-fatal accident at high school – struck by a car while on his bicycle. His injuries stopped him playing sport, so he studied sports science, majoring in coaching.

He’d followed his mother and sister to netball for 10 years, so decided to coach at the grassroots of the game – and became the first man to coach in the ANZ Championship.

While Wright and Wilson share a similar coaching style, their differences “balance each other out”, Fitzpatrick says.

“Rob’s very detailed and technical while Leney [Wilson] is more ‘big picture’, very creative.”

Wilson welcomes the “high performance lens” Wright brings to the team. “He’s also been a great support to me as a head coach, because he’s done it all before. The dialogue is awesome,” she says.

Wright appreciates the way Wilson engages the players. “I think that’s 21st century coaching, isn’t it? You really involve the players in the process. I always think as a coach, you see it, but the players feel it,” he says.

“There seems to be a real closeness, a feeling of family in the team. They’re a good bunch who care about each other. That comes across in the Silver Ferns too; I’ve always loved New Zealand teams. “I reckon it’s a different feeling from Australian teams. I think the teams that do really well in Australia have that, but I don’t think all of them have it. It’s not just what you put out on court, it’s the entire package..”

From what he’s seen so far, Wright reckons the Mystics are in for a strong season. They finished third last year, but have welcomed back Silver Ferns shooter Bailey Mes, who was out for a year with a knee injury.

Their defence won’t have last year’s captain, Phoenix Karaka, who’s focusing on her recovery after having a baby daughter, while Michaela Sokolich-Beatson is still in rehab from her second Achilles rupture. So they’ve added Northern Stars defenders Fa’amu Ioane and Kate Burley to their line-up.

“I reckon we’ve got a really good mix,” says Wright. “They’ve got a spine of really strong experienced players, but around them they’ve got these really talented youngsters who bring the enthusiasm, and no fear.”

Players like towering teenage goal shoot Grace Nweke, who would have starred in the New Zealand U21 side this year.

“I’m so disappointed the World Youth Cup has been cancelled, because I don’t think there’s anyone in the world who would have stopped Grace. Not a chance,” Wright says. “Helene has been so clever – they’ve got super youth who are going to take this team a long, long way for a long time.”

This weekend’s three-day pre-season tournament at Ngā Purapura on Te Wānanga o Raukawa campus will test not only the Mystics players, but also the coaching troika.

Wright will watch their games on a livestream feed while hooked up to Wilson and Winikerei through sound during the quarters. In the breaks, he can speak to the team.

“We’ll have a seat set up for him in the changing room,” Fitzpatrick says, “so he can talk to us and give us feedback.”

This season also provides a great opportunity for Winikerei, who landed the apprentice coach role this season as part of the Mystics’ commitment to develop local coaches who’ve shown interest in coaching at a high performance level. Part of her role is making sure Wright is connected.

Even in these weird times, Wright says taking up the position with the Mystics was the best decision he’s made.

“What an opportunity – having world champion players in every team. There was not one second thought – I just knew it was the right call,” he says.

“I don’t even feel like its work. I go back and watch training again, all the games again, and see things I might have missed live.

“We all got used to this last year, didn’t we? Meetings on the computer became life. The only problem now is I’m always relying on someone to carry me around.”