State pride runs deep in Queensland – just ask Clare McMeniman. When asked if she had ever considered playing for another team in netball’s highly competitive ANZ Championship, the 30-year-old laughed.
“Oh I definitely always wanted to be at home!” she said. “I wanted to be back around my family and my friends. And I just love Queensland, I always loved the Firebirds when I was younger, even though they were a battling team through my junior years. But it was a team that I always wanted to represent.”
Recent netball converts may be surprised to hear “battling” and “Firebirds” in the same sentence. Over the past few years they have so been intimidatingly hard to stop, it is difficult to imagine it any other way. According to McMeniman, the team’s wake up call came at the start of the 2011 season.
“We sat down as a group at the start of the year and spoke about how we perceived ourselves and how we wanted to be perceived by other teams,” she said. “And one of the girls in the group who’d just come to the team from interstate brought to our attention that we had the goods in terms of personnel, but we didn’t have the belief in ourselves to run it through to the end. That really cut to the core because we thought that we were doing all the right things. We were training really hard and putting in all this effort, but we didn’t have that belief to really step across the line and push it through.”
As a group, the team decided they would no longer accept any less than achieving their ambitious goal of going through the season undefeated.
“It was time for us all to take responsibility for what we were doing and be accountable for our actions. There were some close calls, but I suppose the difference in 2011 was that we did have the ability to finish things off and we did go through undefeated, which then paved the way for the standards and the high performance behaviours that we have among the group now.”
So impressive was that feat that at the end of the season with premiership trophy in hand, McMeniman felt that she had achieved everything that she had wanted to in netball and announced her retirement at the age of 26.
“At that time I had no plans to return to playing the game again,” she said. “I wasn’t disillusioned with it, but I felt like I had completed everything that I wanted to and I wasn’t enjoying playing anymore. I wanted to spend more time with my family and my friends and to progress my career away from sport. I felt that netball had provided me with everything that it needed to, so I didn’t really want it to be a part of my life anymore.”
The death of her father two years prior had sparked a series of events in McMeniman’s life that led her to this point. She realised she needed to centre herself again and to do that, she needed to step away from the sport that had been such a big focal point.
After two years away from the game – a period where she was able spend time with her partner and family, which became particularly important after the unexpected death of her mother in 2012 – McMeniman decided to return to playing netball.
“I think having the two years off was the best thing that I could have done,” she said. “I got a much better balance with my sport and my life."
"I’m a lot more balanced in terms of how I approach the game now and how I approach my life generally and I think that’s probably what has allowed me to come back and play."
"Originally when I came back, I didn’t know if I’d even be able to finish out the season, but here I am three years later and still enjoying what I’m doing.”
Stepping back into the team and taking on the vice-captaincy role, McMeniman hasn’t missed a beat. She jokes that her contrasting leadership style with captain Laura Geitz sets them up as a good cop / bad cop pairing.
“Geitzy’s just ever-lovable and so great in terms of how she engages with the girls and she’s incredibly inspirational,” she said. “But just in terms of who I am as an individual, I tend to sometimes pay attention to the little things and I can be a bit pedantic."
"I like to drive standards and remind people of what they’re accountable to and that’s the role I play. So sometimes the girls get the inspiration from Geitzy and the love and the stuff that makes them feel so great, but I’m the one that brings them back down to earth."
"It’s not always the nicest role to have, but that’s totally fine because I think you need that balance sometimes within a team.”
While the Firebirds are sitting at the top of the Australian conference, the task in front of them is mammoth. No team has ever won back-to-back premierships in the ANZ Championship, but McMeniman believes her team has the approach to make history.
“We just have an intrinsic belief within our team that that is achievable,” she said. “But we’re very well aware that at any point in time, any team can be beaten if they don’t play their best netball. So we’re focussing on the smaller things, rather than the big outcome of winning a back-to-back championship. We know that that’s the goal, but it’s really application to the process of how to achieve that outcome.”
For McMeniman herself, it’s about remaining true to herself – her time away from the game has reminded her of the importance of keeping that balance in her life.
“I appreciate now that netball’s not the be all and end all of life, but it’s certainly a very special part of it,” she said.