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Sister Act

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

These sisters doing it not only for themselves and their country but someone very special as well.

By Julian Buckmaster - @JulianTFA

Ah, siblings. Everyone knows the blood-line connection and the love that flows and the loathing and conflict that grows that only a family best knows and delivers. And all usually under the same roof and the same protagonists looking for a different result doing the same thing. Sound familiar?

Domestic bliss, hey? The competitions, the agreements the disagreements, the indiscretions. The bonds and ties that bind. The fights and frights and shared highs and lows. The equal part harmony and hegemony that makes up the fabric of the modern household. The rivalry. The settlements.

And in the middle of it all you have the parents. You have to love the lot of a parent – referee, judge, jury, provider, decider and pacifier. Somehow seemingly keeping it all together and with a referees whistle always on the ready and the smile behind gritted teeth to keep the peace.

Now, for the purposes of this piece let’s quietly ask the boys to slip outside and perhaps, go climb a tree, hit the back shed or better still, run amok with the Touch Football in the backyard as we focus on the important ones. The girls.

History is seemingly littered with successful Australian female siblings.

In the literary world you have the famous Bronte sisters; in music, the Minogue’s and the Veronicas’ sisters have it sussed and before all them the Andrews sisters from another time and age. In modelling it’s the Hart’s captivating the world’s catwalks and gaze. Even the tourism landmarks/landforms get a gig with the famous three sisters in the Blue Mountains…but that’s another story entirely.

However, it’s in the Australian sporting world that something particularly curious is emerging and warrants examination. The Campbell sisters are probably the most prominent from the Australian public’s view; certainly capturing the imagination and most of the headlines in their quest for gold in Rio later this year. Cate Campbell said it best in a recent SMH report: “So special. So special. To compete in a relay with Bronte; that was always our dream, because it’s the only time we can swim together instead of against each other.”

But at the elite Touch Football level, there is, as they say in our sport’s vernacular, certainly a pattern developing here.

What it is exactly that runs through the Touch Football family tree that is breeding success in the female format, we can’t be sure - nurture? Nature? Combination of both? A great sense of family is a recurring theme.

Something we do know is that a very rich and rare commodity seems to run in the veins of those successful siblings representing their country; which probably needs bottling and a good deal of explaining.

As opposed to other sporting codes, for the Australian Women’s Open team, this would require a major enquiry to get to the bottom and foundation of this relative gene pool genius.

Consider the conga line of sisters doing it not only for themselves but their younger/older siblings on the current stage, seeking International titles and Test honours.

 

In the 2016 set-up we turn to the Davis sisters of Manly in Sydney; Danni and Shellie the domestic dynamic duo that currently carry the family flame and a burning desire to succeed together. With Danni establishing herself in the side and now regarded as a senior team member competing at several Australian campaigns, it is Shellie who has made her debut alongside her elder sis in the green and gold at the Trans-Tasman and revelling in the team alongside sister, Danni.

“Having Danni at every step and watching her pathway has made me feel inspired and made my Touch career more exciting. Being able to learn and watch her has really assisted me and I hope the both of us,” she said with Danni not for the first time, by her side at the team hotel in Auckland, on the eve of this year’s tournament.

Naturally this all brings a knowing smile and perhaps a glint of a tear to older sister Danni.

“Playing for Australian women’s has always been a tremendous honour and goal for me and always amazing. But once Shellie started making her way through state and youth national teams I knew she wouldn’t be far away from cracking the women’s team.

“We train a lot together and do a lot of one-on-ones. We always talk about the little things like winning the rucks and talk; but now it’s actually happening [representing together] it’s just…unbelievable” – Danni says, shaking her head while Shellie nods in agreement.

“We play in a local competition as well with a lot of younger girls coming through; so we spend a fair bit of time together with reps across the board and wouldn’t want it any other way.

When quizzed on her knowledge of the sisterhood preceding her in the national team, she was as quick in response as one of her snipes on the field careering towards the try-line.

“We look at and are inspired by those before us: the Judd’s, the Winchester’s and Hopkin’s girls and it is something really special to be a part of this special group of sisters competing at the highest level.

“I consider everyone from Touch Football as special and family so it just all goes with the territory I guess, too.” Hard to argue with that.

Much like the Davis girls’, their teammate from north of the border, Sammy Hopkin, continues her great form of late but was doing so without her older sister and wife of superstar, Dylan Hennessey, Emily Hennessey (nee Hopkin) in Auckland. A superstar duo this pair. The sisters that is.

When posed with the question of nature v nurture, Sammy was naturally very diplomatic in response leaving no doubt that both parents are responsible for all this; and doing what all good daughters (and sons) do and choose not to pick a side, rather sit on the fence.

“Probably both Emily and I both think that both parents would suggest the talent comes from their respective bloodlines, so we won’t argue with that or them,” she says with a cheeky grin in between matches in Auckland recently.

“I don’t know but as sisters we had this immediate bond and we’re best friends playing together since we were little. And, even at home, you’re like, mucking around and you’re basically in tune and can read each other’s moods and minds.

“I know I certainly feel more confident when they’re there; and that said I did miss her being there (in Auckland), with me and the rest of the team,” she added.

“I always miss her presence when she’s not around and she always messages me and wishes us luck…and she supports the girls with a few tips and she watches the games.

“It’s something I’m sure all the other sisters would agree.” When pressed on the parents’ thing again…she’s unmoved and tells it as it is.

“I’m the middle child so I don’t play favourites with them at all – in fact I have to try and suck up to both of them…and often.”

Switching back to the Peninsula, only one half of the Peattie sisters featured at the Trans Tasman with Laura representing her national colours and family crest. Sister, Sarah meanwhile is still recovering from injury but has been a prominent member of the Australian contingent over the past five years.

Now, cast your mind back further as we reflect back on this roll-call of Touch royalty that spans the generations past and carried through to the present.

The Winchester sisters, Captain Louise and Canterbury colleague, Claire who represented Australia together on numerous occasions, stemming back to the 2007 World Cup, were two of the most recognisable and revered sisters in the game. This thread now starting to sound familiar?

Before them came the Judd twins who marched triumphantly across the globe up until recently – Kristy and Amanda. And, before them it was the Maher’s of Cronulla – Gaby, Kitty and Dom Maher who dominated proceedings in the late-80s and early 90’s (with Fiona an honourable mention making State Mixed teams) and setting the bar at a lofty height with a near team of sisters.

Shifting focus to the millennium past, and perhaps very fittingly, it was the wife of recently retired Australian Women’s Coach, Peter Bell, Catherine Bell (nee Barr and her sister Angela), who represented their country with aplomb and along with the McWhirter sisters (Susan and Maria), set the tone as forbearers of things to come.

The conclusion? Difficult to nominate one central thread but there is something either in the water with Touch Football as a sport or the girls being produced in the Touch Football family are too good to not be selected. Or, is it simply the inclusion element of every getting a go and parents choosing not to discriminate who plays what or when, nor where and the sheer weight of numbers playing the game, thereby determines the outcome.

We turned to someone well and truly in the know who is probably best placed to know, witnessing first-hand the familiar familial thread over generations past and now, present overseeing the athlete monitoring and overall national team selections’ process.

Since retiring from the teacher’s ranks of some 40 years, Cathy Gray, TFA’s High Performance Director, suggests a recurring theme of family is omnipresent but perhaps with a little twist.

“I think there has always been that steady and reliable link of family throughout the history of the sport,” she said after a rigorous but stunningly successful 2016 Trans-Tasman campaign.

“The sport is certainly unique in that it is easier for families to link-up together at competitions and start to follow each other to tournaments – and that certainly makes it easier for parents to follow a common interest and pathway of their kids,” she added. “Probably also helps with transport and payment options too where they gravitate to a central location and makes it easier for pick-ups and the like,” she added with a touch of wisdom and you sense, long-held experience as a retired ‘chalkie’.

But while that satisfies the participation area she thinks too that the advent of national programs, certainly in the more recent past, has a bit to do with it as well.

“When the youth program became more prominent, and particularly after the Youth World Cup in 2005, what we had was the youth and senior players coming into alignment more closely,” she recalls.

“With the younger sister coming up into and through the senior ranks more quickly there was a key opportunity opened up for younger and older sisters to merge more easily into representative programs together and compete at the same level and of course, the same teams – be it regional, state and national, or all.

“One key attribute I see is the strong sense of pride the sibling or even twin sisters (read: Judd’s) have when competing together in an already generally family-like team. They watch out and advise and miss each other as they would do in general everyday life.” 

With her distinct and self-professed ‘grandmotherly’ approach to the girls coming into the rep programs, notwithstanding her tireless support and sage advice along the way, all the girls she recalls fondly are quite receptive and assured by Cathy’s hugs and no doubt, warm nature. 

And over her long and diverse resume of successful national campaigns was there anyone or anything that caught her eye or amused her so?

“I have to say the Winchester’s were especially amusing to me,” referring to the very successful Louise and Claire double act from the heart of Bulldogs territory.

“It’s funny when I think of when Louise was coming through the ranks, she wasn’t exactly the most organised of players and couldn’t or didn’t get things to managers etc in time,” noting her off field exploits certainly didn’t match her on-field ability.

“So when Claire came through I cracked up when Louise would say to me very ashen-faced: ‘Don’t worry about it, Cathy I will look after and take care of everything Claire needs to do and get it through to you,”

“Let’s just say it didn’t inspire me with a lot of confidence and I had to feel a bit for Claire, to actually!”

So there we have it and leave it. Make up your own mind what it is that has and you dare say will drive the sisterhood further into the national programs of the future.

 Irrespective, long may their reign in the green and gold continue and we can only hope for many sequels of these ‘Sisters Acts’, down the track. 

One thing is certainly true. Family is at the heart of it.

Let the arguments begin.