There was a changing of the guard in Australian netball following the country’s triumph in the 1995 Netball World Cup played in the English city of Birmingham.
It was the last international appearance for captain Michelle den Dekker, pictured right, who retired in triumph after leading Australia to back-to-back world titles and a staggering 92 per cent winning record in charge of the national team.
But den Dekker said she left the game knowing that Australia had two ready-made replacements to fill her defensive post in fellow South Australian Kathryn Harby-Williams and a rising young star by the name of Liz Ellis.
For den Dekker, who played 84 Tests over a career spanning a decade, she knew the time was right to hand over the baton to the next generation.
“A lot of people said to me `why didn’t you keep playing, you were only 29 when you retired?’ but there was some very, very good defenders under me that could have missed a whole cycle of netball for Australia,” den Dekker recalled.
“I’d had a good 12-year span playing for Australia. So to see Kath sitting on the bench, she had waited many years for her chance, and back then Lizzy was coming through and I knew that the next world championship team in 1999 would really be their focal point.”
Ellis became den Dekker’s partner in Australia’s defence during the 1995 tournament with Harby-Williams eagerly waiting on the sidelines for any bit of court time coach Jill McIntosh could offer.
“She (Harby-Williams) was the catalyst for pushing me,” den Dekker said.
“What I saw in Liz was just a developing of her well roundedness as an athlete, not just her netball but also her leadership and her off-court growth into the person Liz Ellis is today.
The 1995 tournament was also significant in the fact that Australia’s opponent in the Final was South Africa, making its first world championship appearance since 1967.
The South African side went on a fairytale run through the tournament led by a young goal shooter named Irene van Dyk.
Although Australia cruised to a 20-goal win in the Final, den Dekker said she knew that the 190cm van Dyk would become a star of international netball.
“She talked the whole way through the game – about everything,” den Dekker recalls about her last encounter with van Dyk.
“She wore really bright lipstick and lots of eye makeup so I remember playing on this tall, baby-faced doll. It was a constant battle, which I think Irene became very well known for throughout her career. Any long ball that went into that circle, Lizzy and myself had to work hard for that elusive intercept.”
That van Dyk was still playing international netball almost two decades later was a feat that den Dekker marveled at. She retired in 2013 having played a world record 217 Tests for South Africa and New Zealand.
“Luckily she’s played in a shooting role but she is a natural athlete and made me realise what a legend she is in the game,” den Dekker, who is now the Australian Diamonds assistant coach, said.
Every fortnight leading into this year’s Netball World Cup we’ll feature a story from one of Australia’s past campaigns.
Stay tuned to netball.com.au for the next installment.