Last year, Super Netball came under fire for having just one Indigenous athlete among 96 players in the league.
But this year, the sport has more First Nations talent on the fringe of the league’s senior playing group, and one of them is not too far off making her Super Netball debut.
Gabby Coffey was born in Darwin but now lives in Victoria, where she has recently been picked up as a Melbourne Vixens training partner.
The 21-year-old grew up in the Northern Territory with her three siblings, spending time in Katherine and Tennant, before settling in Alice Springs, where her family are still based.
Her father, Mark, is a member of the Netball Northern Territory board, while her Indigenous roots come from her mother Cate — a Wiradjuri woman originally from New South Wales.
Coffey has already had to make a huge commitment to her sport, including moving interstate during her HSC years in 2017 to pursue her dream of one day playing Super Netball.
It was the same year she caught the eye of the Australian Institute of Sport while representing the Northern Territory at the National Championships. Since then, Coffey’s netball star has risen.
In 2018, she won the national title with the Victorian U19s team, which saw her earn call-ups to the Victorian Fury Australian National League (ANL) squad and Vixens Academy in 2019.
In 2020, Coffey flew back to Alice Springs to spend some time with her family and got stuck there when COVID-19 hit Victoria and border restrictions were brought in.
However, she was determined to push for a spot in the Australian U21 squad set to play at this year’s Netball World Youth Cup, so headed to South Australia on her own for six weeks to ensure she was still training competitively and had the best possible chance for selection.
The hard work paid off and Coffee was selected in December, only for the World Youth Cup to be cancelled in March.
But Coffey had another opportunity coming right around the corner.
In the 2021 pre-season, the Vixens had multiple injuries that opened up a spot in the squad for an extra training partner.
By then, Coffey was back in Melbourne training and was finally in the right place, at the right time.
She was whisked off to Sydney with the rest of the group, ready to play practice matches against the Giants, NSW Swifts and Sunshine Coast Lightning in preparation for the upcoming season.
“I knew they were looking for another training partner and Simone did say to me that the trip would be a great opportunity for the coaches to get a look at me in that environment, but I didn’t actually think that I’d get chosen,” she told the ABC.
While Coffey still sits behind the defensive powerhouses of Emily Mannix, Kate Eddy, Kadie-Ann Dehaney and Jo Weston, she is not far behind the pack and says she feels lucky to be learning from the best.
“I keep a little training diary and I feel like I’ve written so much down already because I’m learning so much,” she said.
Higher expectations for this year’s Indigenous Round
As we approach the fourth inaugural Indigenous Round in the Super Netball league, which for the first time will take place across two weekends, Coffey says fans will likely hold the sport to a greater account this year.
There will already be a slight shift in focus, because Mi Mi won’t be completely on her own, now that Coffey is part of the Vixens setup.
West Coast Fever also have Leeds Rhinos player Donnell Wallam in their extended squad, although she is currently playing in the UK and is not expected to be back with the group as a training partner until later this season.
“It was disappointing and upsetting to watch what happened to Jemma last year,” Coffey said.
“But because that moment happened and it got so much attention, in a way it provided an opportunity to highlight what really needed to be done.”
“They have taken an important step forward and I hope it will encourage more Indigenous girls to play.”
Increased funding for netball in the NT could help accelerate participation rates
According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, the Northern Territory has the highest proportion of Indigenous residents among its population, estimated to be 31 per cent in 2020, around 78,600 people.
Having played all her junior netball in the Northern Territory, Coffey believes it must have one of Australia’s highest percentages for Indigenous participation in netball, too.
However, the state body wasn’t able to confirm this, given there was no requirement for individuals to identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders in the registration process.
“Last year when I went back home for a bit, I started playing in a team where almost all of the team were Indigenous,” Coffey said.
While Coffey is loving life in Melbourne now, she admits she would have preferred to stay with her family — if the Northern Territory had the ability to establish similar pathways and elite teams.
“In the years I came through, they didn’t have enough funding from the Northern Territory Institute of Sport, because it would go to swimming or athletics, so if you were in Alice Springs and other places that were far from Darwin, you had to go to the gym and get things done on your own accord instead of training together — which is hard when you’re young and you don’t really know how to use the equipment or have anyone to guide you.”
“If the sport was able to provide us with more opportunity there, I definitely think I would have stayed instead of moving to a different state at 17.”