Netball: Defender Jane Watson raring to return to court for Silver Ferns after maternity absence

After almost two years on the sidelines, Silver Ferns defender Jane Watson has declared herself "ready to go", as she embarks on the team's first international campaign of a World Cup build-up.

But she was far from alone, as she boarded the plane for this month's Quad Series at Cape Town. 

Last sighted in a black dress, Watson, 32, was co-captain of the national netball team and celebrating her 50th test in a Constellation Cup series victory over Australia in March 2021, but her season was cut short by an ankle injury and surgery soon after.

Later that year, she fell pregnant and gave birth to daughter Tia in May 2022, further delaying her return to the Ferns.

Now, as coach Dame Noeline Taurua slowly gets the band back together to defend their world title, Watson provides perhaps the missing piece in the team's defence.

"I'm actually ready to go," she insisted. "I've had a really good block of training these last three weeks, probably a month actually.

"My body's feeling a bit sore, I will admit, but feeling pretty good considering. I had my first full game at training the other night and my body was definitely buggered after that, but it's exciting, and I'm looking forward to getting out there and seeing what I can do.

'You always say you never take the black dress for granted, but when you play for so long, it does become your job. Being away for so long has lit a little fire within me, but I'm really looking forward to having Tia come oncourt after games - it will be really special."

Watson will have baby Tia and partner Santana Nicholls-Hepi along for the trip, but the Silver Ferns are already well accustomed to welcoming extended family on board, after Kayla Johnson and Phoenix Karaka brought offspring on tour last year.

Jane Watson with baby Tia prepare to leave for South Africa
Jane Watson celebrates 50 tests for the Silver Ferns. Photo credit: Photosport

"It's awesome having babies on tour," said midcourt Gina Crampton. "She's got 13 other aunties and might be a little bit overwhelmed."

Dame Noeline admits Watson's limited activity over the last couple of years will see her minutes managed initially, starting with half games and then adjusted accordingly, as her court fitness improves.

"She's looking very good physically," said Taurua.

The Ferns have struggled to put their best line-up on court over the last couple of years, with key players taking extended time away, including Watson, Crampton, captain Ameliaranne Ekenasio and defender Karin Burger.

Last year, midcourt Peta Toeava starred, as New Zealand swept both home games of the trans-Tasman series, but was then left behind, when the Ferns lost both fixtures across the ditch and the silverware.

Bringing all those ingredients back together with the World Cup looming in July/August is the challenge facing Dame Noeline.

"We always go out there to win and that's the intention every time we step out on court," she said. "But there's also a bit of a taster, I suppose, with some players coming back into the mix, knowing there will be a transition period for them to settle themselves.

"I think the expectation is very high, knowing there is a lot of international experience and caps. It feels a bit different with regards to the chemistry of this group and my hopes are high." 

New Zealand begin their Quad Series against hosts South Africa next Sunday (NZ time), followed by encounters against Australia and England, probably their toughest rivals for the world crown.