Though the team’s results might not suggest she has been able to turn them around entirely just yet, Norma Plummer has managed to evoke such a strong sense of perseverance and tenacity in the national squad that the Proteas have been given a fighting chance at the Netball World Cup.
Since she took over the side as head coach four years ago, Plummer has lifted the SA team one place in the world rankings, but they have been stranded in fifth position for some time.
Their lengthy medal drought has also been extended, with the national team settling for fifth place at last year’s Commonwealth Games on Australia’s Gold Coast, and on paper their recent results might suggest the Proteas will be punching well above their weight at the World Cup which started in Liverpool on Friday.
Plummer, however, has instilled a sense of determination which had not previously been evident, and the Proteas have evolved into an attacking side, using their pace and skill to counter the height and strength of some of their opponents.
While they are still without a win over Australia or New Zealand in the annual four-nation Quad Series, they have narrowed the gap and given both sides scares in recent Test matches, and earlier this year the Proteas secured a rare victory over Commonwealth Games champions England.
“They have learnt to deal with pressure and how to handle uncomfortable situations,” Plummer said recently of the improvements they had made as a squad.
Born in Melbourne, Plummer enjoyed a successful playing career, turning out for the Australian national team over a 10-year period between 1972 and 1981.
She formed part of the Australian side which won the 1975 World Cup in Auckland, and she captained the squad in four Tests in 1978.
After retiring as a player, Plummer embarked on a coaching career, developing her knowledge of the game at club level before she was appointed coach of the Australian Under-21 team in 1995.
Four years later she was named netball head coach at the Australian Institute of Sport, and in 2003 she was promoted to head coach of the Australian senior team.
During her eight-year tenure as coach of the Diamonds, Plummer ensured they maintained their high standard, guiding them to World Cup titles in 2007 and 2011, as well as Commonwealth Games silver medals in 2006 and 2010.
After stepping down from her national post, Plummer hopped around for a while, outsourcing her skills to various countries as a consultant coach and becoming renowned as a mentor to the global elite.
She ultimately settled down, however, and she was named head coach of the SA team in June 2015.
Introducing a new approach with the help of long-time assistant Nicole Cusack, Plummer has created a fresh mindset within the Proteas squad, and though she has become known for her firm approach, her influence has been evident.
The players, in turn, have been full of praise for the 74-year-old foreigner, and while Plummer lives in Melbourne and works directly with the squad only when they’re in camp, she has been lauded for the impact she has made.
If South African netball is to continue climbing the global rankings and become a real force, however, Plummer has repeatedly stressed the need for a professional domestic league.
Though more than half the SA squad have contracts with professional teams in Australia, New Zealand and England, netball remains a largely amateur sport in South Africa.
And while Netball SA recently announced the extension of the semi-professional Telkom Netball League, Plummer insists a system is required in which the players can train and compete full time.
“What has to be understood is that Australia have a full-time daily training environment. South Africa don’t have this,” says Plummer.
“I have just five days to get them together, while the Australians have camp after camp with their team. They also play in a full-time professional national league.
“The players are professional athletes who do not have to work, which is why Australia are the world champions and South Africa are ranked fifth.”
Nonetheless, Plummer believes the Proteas have improved sufficiently in recent years to target a podium place in Liverpool and bring an end to their 24-year medal drought.
If they are at their best throughout the tournament, she feels they could even challenge for gold.
“They know they don’t have to stand back for anybody.
“There are five countries that can make it to the top and we are one of them.”