Irene van Dyk and Catherine Cox really should hate each other. As former professional netballers, both women have experienced the intense and, at times, bitter rivalry between New Zealand and Australia, as well as the expectation to win.
So you’d forgive passers-by for doing a double-take when they see our beloved Irene, having a drink with an Australian netball legend.
But that’s exactly what’s happening on a sunny day in Hawke’s Bay, the pair giggling and joking over a wine – well, Cath’s drinking a chardonnay; Irene hates wine and much prefers a cold beer. It quickly becomes very apparent that the good friends and netball greats have a lot in common.
Both managed to play more than 100 tests for their countries as goal shooters, and both are mums to a daughter – Irene (44) to Bianca (18) and Cath (42) to 10-month-old Harper. And both were not born in the countries they went on to represent on the netball court, with South-African native Irene making her Silver Fern debut in 2000 after 72 games for her homeland.
Cath, funnily enough, was born in New Zealand before moving to Australia when she was six.
“She has the best sense of humour – very dry and quick. Very Kiwi, actually!” says Irene.
The duo are in Hawke’s Bay to attend Court in the Bay, a new competitive and social netball tournament, but have slipped away for a quick photoshoot and a gasbag to catch up on their lives either side of the ditch.
“Now that we’re both retired, we have more time to see each other,” tells Cath, who normally resides in Sydney with her partner Luke and their daughter.
“When we were playing, though, Irene would always give you a kiss on the cheek before the game started. No-one else would do that! It’s too serious these days – we used to have after-match functions where we could get to know each other and they don’t do that any more. You can still be serious on court and be mates off it.”
Irene grins, “After tours, you’d normally head to a bar or something and start dancing on tables.”
Since they both called time on their international careers in 2014, the pair’s relationship has gone from strength to strength. Irene even made a special appearance during Cath’s theatre show The Centurions, a play about the careers of herself and fellow Aussie netball greats Liz Ellis and Sharelle McMahon.
While they did play against each other when Irene was still representing South Africa – her first game was in 1994, while Catherine debuted in 1997 – it was when Irene first pulled on the little black dress that Cath took notice of the legendary shooter.
“I remember your first game for New Zealand – we absolutely spanked you guys,” Cath laughs. “And that game is one of the only ones that I actually remember.”
“We got absolutely smashed,” Irene recalls, shaking her head.
Sixteen years have passed since then, but while a very competitive enmity remains when the pair are watching a netball game together, both Irene and Cath have relished the chance to become firm friends.
“We’re both pretty similar, very relaxed, and we like a laugh,” tells Cath. “You can just tell she’s a good stick.”
They both remember each other as the biggest threat in the opposition team. Irene recalls their video analysis of games. She says if the Ferns knew Cath was playing, they knew they were in trouble.
“We always hoped you wouldn’t play” she grins. “In terms of having an impact on the game, I’m nowhere near Irene” says Cath with a shake of her head.
“If Irene’s in your team, she’s on the court; I was always off and on. Irene is a legend.”
Though Cath is now a true blue Aussie, even getting an Australian passport years ago because she was getting sick of all the ribbing she was getting from her teammates, she does admit, grudgingly, that she owes Aotearoa a lot – her partner Luke for one thing.
“He’s from Hawke’s Bay, so we’re back here a bit, and it’s how I’m involved with Court in the Bay,” she says.
Being involved with grassroots netball is incredibly important for both Cath and Irene, who has taken on an ambassadorial role at Netball New Zealand since her retirement.
But does it ever make them want to pull on their netball bibs just one more time? “Hell, no,” Cath says quickly. “That ship has sailed.”
Irene adds, “I still play club netball, for St Mary’s Old Girls – old girls, it’s in the name!”
“What is wrong with you?” Cath demands through laughter. “Can you imagine the opposition when they get to the court and they see they’re playing against Irene? You’d just turn around and go home, wouldn’t you?”
“Well, I give them good cuddles and tell them it’s going to be okay,” Irene replies with a slightly guilty look. “And I only play goal keep – I never shoot!”
“Well, that’s fair,” Cath nods, taking a sip of wine. “Because I’ve seen Irene try to defend!”
Clearly, the great Kiwi/Aussie banter is alive and well, though Cath admits to being a little envious of the profile and media attention that netball enjoys in New Zealand.
“It’s getting a bit better in Australia, but here, it’s really good,” she nods. “Even when we came over from Sydney, I saw the newspaper on the plane and the whole back page was Laura Langman.”
Still, Cath has no plans to relocate back to New Zealand, despite her Kiwi connections – and an apparently exceptionally strong fan base.
“It’s funny. I always noticed if I had a s* game and I was doing a press conference, they’d say nothing, but if I had a good one, the first thing that was said was, ‘So, you were born in New Zealand!’” she hoots.
“Classic Kiwis!” Irene grins.
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