Locals return from national duties

Line-up: The Maltese national netball team. Photographs supplied




NOT many people can say that they have represented their country, but cousins Sienna Blair and Georgia Zammit certainly can.

From Morwell East A Grade to the Maltese National team, the duo had quite the experience playing for their country at the Europe Netball Open Challenge Event.

From May 10 until May 14, the duo competed at the Cardiff City House of Sport in the United Kingdom against some quality competition.

Flying out from Melbourne on Saturday, April 8 to start training with the Maltese side on the following Monday, the girls were given no guarantee of a spot on the international side and had to earn their stripes.

The young women were put to the test with a training camp in Rabat on that Friday in preparation for the tournament.

Teams were announced shortly after a few trainings and trials.

The cousins must have impressed, as Blair was picked as a primary defender and Zammit as a mid-courter and voted in as vice-captain by her teammates.

“I personally was shocked and a bit overwhelmed but yeah that was really special,” Zammit said.

“I think from the get-go, training and training camp you could just tell that G (Georgia) has always had a leadership personality,” Blair said.

“If someone had told me that a year ago I would be the vice-captain of Malta, I would’ve laughed in their face,” Zammit said.

The team trained three days a week with intense sessions in high temperatures.

The pair said the whole experience felt like an incredibly professional environment, playing and training where some of the biggest names in netball have played.

“We were there for five weeks prior to the tournament, we trained three days a week for two and a half to three hours … one of those training was fitness training. Sienna and I were trying to sneak in as much travel as possible so we would be doing 20 to 22,000 steps a day and then rocking up to training and asking, ‘Why did we do this?’” Zammit said.

The Maltese team first took on Isle of Man, with Blair as starting goal keeper.

“It was definitely scary. In the morning we were told the starting teams, I heard my name and I was like ‘Oh my God I’m starting, it all happened so fast and it was game one,” Blair said.

“I remember going to the facility and it being just massive with all the seats, the bench, the timekeepers the scorers, it all just looked so professional, the barricade around the courts the spectators and the filming.”

“How did I end up here?” she asked herself.

The Maltese team did well to run with their opposition in the first game, but it wasn’t until Zammit came on halfway through the first quarter that the Maltese side took charge.

“I was in full game mode when I came on; I just came on and started playing. Felt really good,” she said.

Zammit’s court dominance came to an early end as she landed awkwardly after receiving a centre pass late in the first quarter.

“As soon as I landed, I just knew straight away. Sienna knew it was bad because I never call time, like I’ve played concussed, I never call time, but on the actual land, I called it,” Zammit said.

The footage did not look pretty, as Zammit immediately grabbed for her knee as she fell.

“Long story short, here we are, I’ve done pretty much everything you could do, ruptured my ACL, moderate tear in my PCL, and MCL, I’ve also torn my meniscus and significant bone bruising and yeah, awaiting surgery,” she said.

“I have one international cap, but it was an amazing experience all the same … pretty interesting experience being on the side lines and being in that elite environment.”

Morwell East A Grade will no doubt miss having their captain playing on the court, but Zammit will continue to support from the side lines.

On May 11, the Maltese side played the Republic of Ireland, going down 72 to 25.

It was a valiant effort from the team, but the Irish were just too good.

The young side then faced off against the United Arab Emirates (UAE) the next day, improving on their score, losing 39 to 67.

On May 13, the team played the Welsh Development squad in a tough battle for a non-ranking match; the Welsh development team ran away in a 70 to 31 point win.

On the same day, the young women put the netball shoes on again to play the Republic of Ireland for a second time, this time going down 76 to 31.

And in the final bronze medal match of the tournament, the Maltese team faced off against the Isle of Man in a very tight battle, falling just short 42 to 31.

The team finished fourth in the first division, with the UAE taking out top spot.

The standard of netball at the Europe Open was at “another level, for sure. Even the actual environment itself was a step above; we had warm-up courts, we had bikes, we had netball rings, and it was elite in every sense of the word”, Zammit said.

Both young women spoke fondly of the whole experience and the memories and friends they made along the way.

The pair are considering the idea of competing for Malta again in the future.

Judi Buhagiar the Eastern Region Manager for Netball Victoria, accompanied the young women on the trip and said, “Sienna and Georgia both slotted in the team quite well.”

“There was a bit of a shock in the first game, but when Georgia came on from memory, we were three goals down with a few minutes to go in the first quarter when she came on, she absolutely turned us around and got us back to a draw because she took control of that midcourt,” Buhagiar said.

Buhagiar said it was “absolutely heart-breaking to watch her go down”, but Zammit’s injury wasn’t the only worry for Malta, with a few other girls suffering from minor injuries during the course of the tournament, meaning the team’s list was spread thin.

Despite injuries and a young side, Buhagiar said the Maltese team took it to the opposition and offered real competition against quality sides.

Blair now has four international caps under her belt, with Buhagiar saying, “She was amazing, she really stood up, and there will be a lot that she will bring back to her regular game now, which is all that we were looking for.”

“Look, we didn’t win games, but we certainly won some hearts,” said Buhagiar as the Maltese side broke streaming records.

Malta is considering making an under 22 side for the next European tournament, which would benefit the Maltese girls and give Sienna a chance to compete at her age level.

“There are seven countries in Europe working toward affiliation with Netball Europe,” Buhagiar added.

Keen netballers from across Australia could consider taking the same leap of faith as the young Morwell girls did as the competition grows globally.

From their experiences, the cousins wished for all the young netballers out there to take on the opportunities given to them and cherish every moment on the court.

“If you get given an opportunity, take it. It doesn’t have to be in sports. Say yes to everything, and don’t worry,” they said.

Mates: Morwell East’s Sienna Blair (back row fifth from left) and Georgia Zammit (on crutches) said they made great friends from the experience.