4 Jul 2020

Netball: Resilient Claire Kersten still learning

4:00 pm on 4 July 2020

Pulse midcourter Claire Kersten admits she has some mixed emotions about her time as a Silver Fern.

The Pulse have won both their opening matches of the season.

Pulse midcourter Claire Kersten with possession of the ball. Photo: Photosport

Just days before New Zealand began their 2018 Commonwealth Games campaign on the Gold Coast, Kayla Cullen was ruled out having failed to recover from a knee injury.

Kersten then found herself on a plane to Australia, having only played three Tests for New Zealand.

She was over the moon but then the wheels quickly came off as has been well documented of the Silver Ferns' Commonwealth Games campaign.

It was the most tumultuous period in the side's history and the 30-year-old admits it was a strange time to be part of the team.

"Yeah it was and I guess for me at the end of 2017 and that Comm Games campaign and the Taini Jamison series lead up to that is my only real experience in the Ferns and there are some mixed emotions around it I guess. I was stoked to be there because you know a few years before hand when I had been cut from Pulse and things I didn't really know where netball sat with me," Kersten said.

"So on one hand you're so excited to be there and the whole atmosphere and the experience of being at Comm Games is awesome but it was a really challenging time so there are some mixed emotions. I wouldn't change that I was part of that and learnt a lot from it and I think it's helped me on and off the court."

Did it feel like a happy playing group?

"Look when results aren't going the way that they're expected to go and that you want them to go that's always going to put pressure on a team and I think that's natural so there were definitely some stressed times. After that third and fourth play-off [losing to Jamaica] I think you could see it on everyone's faces there was a massive amount of disappointment.

"No one goes to be a part of a Commonwealth Games campaign to come out on that side of it that's certainly not what the intention was. But it's happened and you look where Netball New Zealand is now and we're in a really good space."

In the aftermath a comprehensive review was carried out, coach Janine Southby stepped down, and Dame Noeline Taurua took over.

The ultimate redemption came when the Silver Ferns won the Netball World Cup in Liverpool last year but not all the players involved in that miserable Commonwealth Games showing got that closure.

Kersten hasn't played for the Ferns since the Gold Coast campaign but is still in the mix as a Silver Ferns' Development Squad member.

Does that experience motivate her to want to get back into the team when it's in a happier place?

"I don't know if that's the driving force behind it. I think at any stage when you're competing in an elite level you're wanting to be there. Obviously if you're a part of a happy environment and I think you know people have made comments about the Pulse environment for the last couple of years that it's evident that this is a really happy group and that's only going to be positive in terms of on court results as well so that certainly helps things."

After three rounds, the Pulse are the only unbeaten side in the ANZ Premiership and Kersten is a key cog in a talent laden line-up.

She's come a long way since her first season in the ANZ competition.

Kersten first joined the Pulse in 2013 under then coach Robyn Broughton but barely got any court time.

She was dropped after the 2014 season.

Back before the days of the Beko league, she went back to playing club netball.

"I got a full season of club, and NPC was still around in those days so that was the final year of NPC and Wellington won that year so that was a really good way to finish off the 2015 season.

"At the end of 2015 we had trials for Pulse going into the following year and I went to those and missed out and kind of at that point was a bit unsure of where netball kind of sat with me."

Kersten got a phone call just before Christmas asking if she could come in as a training partner but as it eventuated she became a permanent injury replacement.

"But yeah 2013 and 2014 were pretty tough - my first year I didn't touch the court. I wasn't even really considered that young at that time either so there were definitely a fair few challenges at the beginning of my ANZ career."

The Silver Ferns after losing to England, Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games. Claire Kersten (left)

The Silver Ferns after losing to England, Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games. Claire Kersten (left) Photo: Photosport

In 2017 Kersten really hit her straps and said she always knew she had it in her.

"I think that's the biggest reason why I kept signing up for more because I had had those three years and two in particular where you do all the training and you're putting in all your effort. I was working pretty much full-time as well so you're making some pretty big sacrifices and not really getting what you want to get out of it. That was absolutely my biggest reason to carry on because I felt like I could do it and wanted to do it and had not necessarily a point to prove but to prove to myself that I could be there."

After a breakout 2017, the later bloomer got her first Test cap at the end of that year.

She was then called into the side as injury cover for the Taini Jamison series - the final hit-out before the Commonwealth Games.

The signs were ominous with the Silver Ferns losing the series after two losses to Jamaica and the rest is history.

A couple of years ago Kersten made the move from wing defence to centre but doesn't feel like a true blue centre just yet.

"I've very much come from a defensive background. At school I was a circle defender so obviously height is not really on my side and I kept getting pushed up. I remember when I re-signed for 2018 Yvette told me 'we're looking to play you a little bit more at centre' and I was kind of like 'haha yeah right, you say that now but I'll be back at wing defence'.

"But I'm definitely feeling way more comfortable there than I did a few years ago. I like having a bit more freedom on attack and the space to get a little bit more creative. I still feel like I have that defensive mindset a lot of the time but definitely not necessarily a natural centre but feel like I'm making steps towards it."

Pulse coach Yvette McCausland-Durie is pleased with how Kersten has taken to the position later in her career.

"I feel really confident in her as a centre and I think she's shown particularly this season greater confidence around her feeding, she's got real assuredness on attack. She's always had a strong defensive game, we're seeing her run some really clear lines and be really creative on attack so I think she's a very good centre."

McCausland-Durie said Kersten was extremely competitive, and one of the best loose ball getters in the league.

"She's sharp, she's a bright person. She works incredibly hard, has got an engine that lasts well beyond 60 minutes so she can keep pace on no matter what the pressure is. Because she's come from a defensive perspective her transition from attack to defence is really sharp and that's often where you see people drop off but that's where she gets a lot of loose ball is in that transition phase. I think she's done exceptionally well to make the shift later in her career and still be commanding strong performances."

There's a well accepted theory that netballers peak in their late 20s to mid 30s and Kersten said she still felt like she was learning and could get better.

"There are some things that I feel like are maybe not peaking, like I don't feel like I'm as fast as I used to be and so you've got to try and play a little bit smarter sometimes. But I definitely still feel like I've got more to give and can contribute and so as long as I'm in that space then I feel like I'm doing the right thing by playing. I don't want to kind of be slowly tracking downwards by the time I finish up."

She said her main focus this season was around building her presence on court.

"As a centre you've kind of got to do a little bit of everything, you've got to be a solid feeder, you've got to try and pick up ball and putting on pressure in that defensive end, you've got to be the link and so for me it's about getting consistency in all of those aspects of my game."

A couple of years ago she quit her job as a secondary school teacher to focus fully on netball.

These days she's doing some relief work.

"I function a bit better when I've got something outside of netball as well and so I'm sort of getting in two, sometimes three days a week at the moment and I'm really happy with that balance."

The Pulse have a double header this weekend.

They meet the Southern Steel tonight at 5pm and the Waikato Bay of Plenty Magic tomorrow.