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Warm welcome home for history-making NZU21s

Arriving home early this morning, a jubilant NZU21 team has reaffirmed the healthy state of Netball in New Zealand after their history-making feats in Botswana.

Bleary-eyed after their long-haul flight, there was still a high level of excitement emanating from the group who successfully defended their Netball World Youth Cup title in Gaborone on Sunday.

Since the inception of the four-yearly tournament in 1988, it was the first time New Zealand had won back-to-back titles, toppling old rivals Australia by three goals in the final of the 2017 edition to clinch a fourth trophy.

“The calibre of this team is amazing,” NZU21s assistant coach Julie Seymour said.

“I’ve worked with many of them for a few years now and just to see where they’ve come in a couple of years through their own hard work and their work with the franchises, I’m really looking forward to see them keep developing. If they can keep moving on, it’s looking pretty exciting.”

The NZU21 programme has proved a successful breeding ground for future Silver Ferns and on the back of the recent success, there’s a lengthy queue forming for higher honours.

“We found it hard to pick this team, so besides these 12 here, there’s also a group behind this group who are pushing forward which is really exciting,” Seymour said.

Winning the title was a poignant moment for Seymour, who was captain of the first NZU21 team to win a Netball World Youth Cup title in 1992, 25 years later leaving her mark in a coaching capacity.

“It’s the first world event you go to with your own age group, it’s pretty special and I always thought in my mind I would love to be involved again, so finally I am,” she said. “And to bring back the gold… I’d better quit now, two out of two.”

For teenaged shooter Maia Wilson, who has already made the grade as a Silver Fern, and despite her tender years, also represented New Zealand at basketball, the experience has added to a burgeoning high-performance profile.

Along with fellow Silver Fern Kelly Jury (in defence), Wilson, under the hoop at the other end of the court, was a tower of strength as the NZU21s sailed into the final with consummate ease.

“It was quite nerve-wracking heading into the final,” Wilson said.

“We hadn’t really been tested a lot before the Australian game. We were confident in our structures and what we were doing but still a little anxious about what we could do out there. But I guess the score (60-57) says it all.”

The other side of the equation was the event being played on the African continent for the first time, many of the NZU21s never having travelled further than Australia.

“All the what ifs that we prepared for went wrong,” Wilson said. “But I think it was awesome for our management and team to adapt to the African way of life and be a part of something special.

“Learning a new culture and meeting new people while getting to go on safaris and do stuff outside of netball was really important as well. Overall, it was just an amazing experience and we got to pat some lion cubs. How cool is that? Not many people get to do that every day.”