Shannon Saunders’ netball career will complete a full circle at 9am tomorrow when she steps out onto Liverpool Arena’s court for the opening game of the 2019 Netball World Cup.
Having made her New Zealand debut back in 2013, there were fears she’d played her last international match at last year’s Commonwealth Games.
While England left Australia’s Gold Coast on top of the world, it was a much more sobering experience for the Silver Ferns as they missed out on both making the Commonwealth final and winning a medal for the first time.
As a result Saunders (then known as Shannon Francois) was one of a number of players who found themselves out of the squad as New Zealand looked to re-build.
That gave the centre a chance to take a break from the game that had dominated her life and shift her focus onto other things, including her marriage to partner Marcus in January.
The time away also helped Saunders rediscover her love for the sport she’d excelled at for so long and she returned to club outfit Southern Steel in blistering form earlier this year.
Despite this, the 59-time-capped athlete admitted she was still surprised when she received the call confirming she would be travelling over to England for this showpiece event.
‘It was incredible, I wasn’t expecting it at all so it’s really cool to come here with my team-mates,” the 28-year-old recalled.
“It’s awesome to be back playing. It’s given me a new found appreciation for netball and I’m really excited to get out there and help my team as much as I can and hopefully we can be successful.
“I think I just found my love for the game again.
“I went away and had a bit more time in my personal life and really found out that it was what I really wanted to do and that I really am passionate about netball.”
Take a look back at highlights from finals day at the Cadbury Netball Series which saw the NZ Men’s Invitational team take the title over the Silver Ferns, with the All Stars defeating Fiji Pearls to finish third.
— Silver Ferns (@SilverFernsNZ) June 29, 2019
Such a comeback is testament to Saunders’ character; it’s not the first time she has shown such resilience either.
Back in 2017, she was twice diagnosed with skin cancer.
Fortunately on both occasions it was caught early and the basal cell carcinomas were removed without issue but it was still a real shock for the University of Otago graduate, particularly as her sister was also diagnosed with something similar at the same time.
But Saunders was determined to not let it affect her life or her netball too much and returned for Steel just eight days after having the first carcinoma removed from her head.
“It’s always at the back of your mind but it’s just changed what I do day to day – I wear a lot more sunscreen!” she joked, admitting she’s enjoying the warm British weather.
“It just makes sure I definitely don’t take things for granted. The ones I had were definitely not too serious so I was very lucky.
“I just wanted to get straight back out there – I think I had 30 stitches in my head at the time! But it was fine, I had all my team-mates there to support me so that was all good.”
While 2018 may have been a poor year for the Silver Ferns, they are heading into this tournament quietly confident of rediscovering their best form.
They enjoyed a highly competitive Cadbury Netball Series back home last month in which they came up against New Zealand’s men on two occasions in a unique move for the sport.
With netball seen as a predominantly female sport woridwide, Saunders says it was a great opportunity to showcase just how talented her country’s male athletes are and hopes it will encourage others to push their men forward too.
“It was good to play the men and experience the physicality and test ourselves against the taller shooters who we’ll come up against with against the likes of Jamaica,” Saunders – who also works as a pharmacist – said.
“It was really cool. We’ve played them a wee bit before behind closed doors and in camps but it was an awesome spectacle and really raised the awareness of the men’s team throughout New Zealand which was really exciting.
“I think they’re incredible and they play the game at such speed and are so aerial.
“A lot of countries are now starting to develop their men’s teams so it would be great if they could play each other.”
Always an absolute honour to spend time with Dame Lois Muir, talking about retiring at 84, how much netball has changed in 60 years, and how the @SilverFernsNZ will fare at the @NetballWorldCup starting this weekend. @NetballNZ @NetballScoop https://t.co/q1sxj2WnIC
— Suzanne McFadden (@suzemcfadden) July 7, 2019
As for the Silver Ferns, Saunders believes being seen as a potential underdog in this tournament could work in their favour.
Netball legend Dame Lois Muir also recently said she believes the team are in a strong position heading into the event, quotes that Saunders knows her team will take a lot of confidence from.
“It’s always nice to be underdogs as you go under the radar,” she stated.
“We as a team just really want to prove ourselves and play really well for ourselves, our family and also the nation. We know we have the quality to do it and are excited to put it out there on the court.
“It’s always really nice. We’ve been training super hard and really well so it’s been great when people who have been watching us externally say that we’re on the right track, doing the right things and confirm that we’re going in the right direction.”