When Giants Netball coach Julie Fitzgerald called Rebecca Bulley in January, the former Diamonds defender thought it was about a part-time coaching gig.
Woonona-based Bulley announced her retirement in 2015 – after claiming a World Championship gold medal with the Diamonds and a championship with the Queensland Firebirds – in order to start a family.
Now a mother to 11-month old Indie, the 34-year-old wasn’t contemplating a return to top flight netball until a season-ending achilles injury to Kristiana Manu’a put a dent in the Giants defensive depth.
It prompted an SOS call from Fitzgerald and, when Netball NSW also came to the party with a care plan to help her combine playing an parenting duties, it was an offer too enticing to refuse.
“I actually thought Julie was calling me about some coaching with the Giants,” Bulley said ahead of the Giants season-opener against the Swifts on Saturday.
“I retired from netball because I wanted to start a family and become a mum and when I did I certainly wasn’t contemplating a comeback.
“It definitely came out of the blue but Julie just had an answer for every concern and basically made it sound so easy to come back and play and still be a mum to Indie. I just thought ‘why not?’ what a great opportunity’.”
Bulley’s return was made possible through the support of Netball NSW who provide childcare at training and a carer for when the team travels to away games. Bulley hopes other sporting bodies will follow suit to allow female athletes to balance motherhood and elite sporting careers.
“In the past starting a family was something you did once you retired but it doesn’t have to be like that,’ Bulley said.
“I hope that I can set a good example and a benchmark to show what’s possible and I’m just so fortunate that the Giants and Netball NSW have been so supportive in helping me get back on court.
Being able to have Indie at training and games with me is pretty special and I certainly want to make the most of this opportunity and encourage all women to come back and play sport after they’ve had a baby.”
Bulley’s return with the Giants comes with a sense of deja vu having won the inaugural ANZ Championship Championship with the NSW Swifts under Fitzgerald in 2008 where she also played alongside current teammates Kimberlee Green and Susan Pettitt.
“It actually feels like 2008 all over again, coming into a new team, playing under Julie Fitzgerald and alongside Kim Green and Susan Pettitt,” Bulley said.
“We’ve got some some great International experience with Jo Harten and Serena Guthrie as well and then we’ve got some fresh young new faces with Taylah Davies and Jamie-Lee Price that are in the mix as well.
“I think we definitely have the potential to make the top three. That’s our goal at the moment, we don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves.”
Northern Suburbs product Davies will combine with former Swifts teammate Green and England International Harten in a formidable mid-court and is confident the fledgling franchise can give the new competition a major shake.
They’ll take the first step towards that in first-round showdown with cross-town rivals the Swifts on Saturday. Davies is one of a number of former Swifts in the Giants line-up which is sure make for an interesting clash.
“Being a new league there’s a lot of players in new colours and it’s exciting to come up against the Swifts for the first round,” Davies said.
“There’s obviously a few former [Swifts] players now wearing Giants orange but we’re just more excited to get out and play our first game which will be that little bit more special because it’s the first time we’re stepping out as Giants netball.”
Super Netball taking women's sport to new level
Think women's sport has exploded into the Australian mainstream this summer? Wait until you get a glimpse of Super Netball.
The new competition, already worth tens of millions of dollars, begins on Saturday when the Giants and Swifts square off in the first Sydney derby.
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And while the AFL Women's has burst onto the scene this month, and the Women's Big Bash and W-League have both just wrapped up successful seasons, netball remains top of the pile when it comes to female sport in Australia.
That's why Channel Nine and Suncorp have forked out millions of dollars a season for the next five years in a unique sponsorship-broadcast deal.
That's why Netball Australia was able to part ways with its New Zealand counterpart last year, disband the cross-Tasman ANZ Championship and create three new outfits to flesh out a shiny revamped eight-team competition.
That's why all four games in the opening round have sold out and that's why Netball Australia officials believe the financial growth in the sport of more than 50 per cent in the last 18 months is just the tip of iceberg.
"Everything that we're doing around the launch of Suncorp Super Netball has innovation attached to it and the view is that this will continue to push the sport forward and make sure that we do hold that leading position in women's sport," Netball Australia acting CEO Marne Fechner said.
"We can fund our own league, we have better terms and conditions for our players and we've got iconic Australian brands that are sitting behind us and amplifying what this sport is trying to do."
The ANZ Championship folded last year after a split between Netball Australia and Netball New Zealand.
Two of the New Zealand teams had become financially unsustainable and Netball Australia's proposal to cull the two clubs and turn the competition into an eight-league team was rejected across the Tasman.
Both parties opted to start their own domestic leagues, a bold plan to create Giants Netball, the Sunshine Coast Lightning and the Collingwood Magpies was undertaken and Suncorp Super Netball was born.
Channel Nine were immediately interested and teamed up with Netball Australia in a unique partnership between national body and broadcaster before going to market to find a major sponsor.
Suncorp outbid ANZ and several others to land the rights, which are believed to have cost more than three times what ANZ was paying for the Australian component of last year's competition.
Two games will be broadcast live in prime time on Gem each week, and the other two will be live on a Telstra streaming platform.
"This is unlike a lot of other women's sports which are still having to overcome that perception that they're a female version of a male sport, this has got all the ingredients to really pop," Channel Nine managing director Amanda Laing said.
"Netball was very attractive and I think to have a female skewing audience in a live sports product, that's quite unique. We all know who's making the purchasing decisions in the household."
Underpinning the new league are ever-robust participation numbers across the country which have increased 10 per cent in the last year alone.
The latest Australian Sports Commission Ausplay survey revealed almost one million participants across the country, including 332,018 at a junior level.
Netball was also the only sport in Australia last year to be classified in the excelling category of the annual Australian Institute of Sport's Sports Tally.
"They're succeeding from a high-performance level, from a commercial level, from a governance perspective and also from a participation perspective, they're a true sustainable sporting system that they've created," said ASC chief executive and former Netball Australia CEO Kate Palmer.
What they've created is the strongest netball league in the world.
Australia's most-capped netballer Liz Ellis this week likened Super Netball to the English Premier League, given the international talent it had already attracted.
"There's more international players than ever before, it's going to be really exciting to see how they adapt," Ellis said.
"We've got players from all over the world. It's becoming like the English Premier League for netball, the best players in the world want to play here.
"That means that Australian sports fans are going to get the best athletes in the world right here."
- James Buckley