South Australian Gia Abernethy returns for another year with Scottish VNSL side Strathclyde Sirens. (Photo: VNSL)

When Strathclyde Sirens midcourter and South Australian Gia Abernethy first made the move to the UK, she could barely bring herself to watch a game of Suncorp Super Netball.

Even for those who have been removed from it for the better part of half a decade, the Suncorp Super Netball is still undoubtedly the peak of the sport across the world.

The competition has recently been the target of criticism from fans with the introduction of the two-goal Super Shot at the start of the 2020 season. However, there’s no doubt that it’s still host to the best players in the world in all areas of the court.

Jhaniele Fowler, the world’s greatest shooter, continues to be unstoppable under the post. Liz Watson turns heads in the midcourt, while Courtney Bruce, Geva Mentor, and Shamera Sterling set the standard for defenders across the world.

As a product for netball fans, there aren’t many better. But the same can be said for the players.

Strathclyde Sirens midcourter Gia Abernethy made the switch from the Adelaide Thunderbirds to Scotland’s elite netball franchise in 2018, and hasn’t looked back since.

It was a move that taught her about netball, about life, but importantly about herself.

Abernethy was regarded as a promising young versatile midcourter, working her way up the Australian pathways. She captained Contax, and represented South Australia and her nation across her juniors, under 19s and under 21s.

This led to earning a training partner contract with the Thunderbirds, making a huge impact on debut late in a clash with the West Coast Fever in 2017.

After Abernethy failed to earn a contracted 10 spot for the 2018, she admitted that she was “devastated”, and reports came out that she was considering a move to the UK’s Vitality Netball Superleague.

The move would eventuate at the end of that season after failing to make an appearance, joining the Sirens for the 2018/19 season.

Still holding onto some bitter feelings at the time, the now 27-year-old admitted she couldn’t even watch the SSN competition.

“At the start, I was insanely jealous still, that I wasn’t able to be a part of it and that I made the decision to come here,” Abernethy told The Inner Sanctum.

“There was probably a bit of that in the back of my head.

“I can say that out loud now, but it just hurt too much to watch if that makes sense, and see everything that was happening and as exciting as the league was and to know I’m not a part of it.”

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All wounds heal with time, and as she continues life in Scotland, those feelings continue to fade.

2021 was Abernethy’s second year as captain of the Sirens, something which she confesses was a “huge privilege”. It only took one year for her teammates to gain that respect.

Joining Strathclyde, and the VNSL as a whole, made all the internal difference in the world.

“When you’re a 24-year-old not getting what you want, which is the dream contracted spot in the 10, it’s the end of the world. You go ‘how dare they play and have fun without me being involved’,” Abernethy said.

“[Now], everyone’s doing their own thing and everyone’s doing really well. You cannot compare your journeys because I guess that’s what makes them unique.

“I try my hardest not to compare my story with anyone else’s. Over the years, it’s just ended up being that I’ve not actually paid as much attention to it.

“Someone asked me in another interview, if an Australian team called you and offered you to come home, what would you do?

“I had to think about it, because I just am really happy with what we’re doing over here and how our club’s traveling and how our performances are going. It wasn’t a quick yes, if that makes sense.”

Still close with South Australian members of the New South Wales Swifts including Maddy Proud, Sarah Klau and Maddy Turner, Abernethy closely followed their road to the grand final this season.

It was more of an exception than a rule, though.

“I’m very, very close with the Swifts girls, the South Australian Swifts girls, because I went through all my juniors with them,” she said.

“I keep up with them and their successes, but the league in general, not really.

“The Swifts winning the premiership was huge, and I could not be more proud of those girls. Then to get Diamond selection as well for a lot of them was so exciting.

“As a friend keeping up with friends’ successes, 100%, yep, I’m all there.”

History repeats

With more Australians flocking to the VNSL, Abernethy can’t help but see herself in some of the new journeys beginning at the London Pulse.

After another frustrating year as training partners, Melbourne Vixens pair Sacha McDonald and Tayla Honey have made the move to the UK.

The two fly over to England with a support network already between them; the pair are housemates. Abernethy similarly moved countries alongside partner Jeremy.

Having been there and done that, Abernethy is more than encouraging of Aussies who want to switch leagues to continue their netball development.

“I love seeing more and more Australians over here,” she said.

“Australians who are probably in a similar position to I was; a training partner on the bench, and not owning that contracted 10 spot that is so tricky to get over in Australia, because… you can have as many imports as you want.

“To see players make moves for themselves that will open up opportunities for match time, experience, a different lifestyle, I think the more, the better.

“And the more stories we can get back home to show those sort of fringe players that there’s other opportunities other than going through the pathway, if that doesn’t work out, is really great.”

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Abernethy sees the potential for a flow on effect that the greater numbers of Australians playing in the UK could have.

While continuing to work hard as a training partner and continuing to push for an opportunity in an SSN squad has it upsides, there’s so many more doors that can open in a VNSL starting seven.

“The attitude you have to training and the competitiveness that you learn playing in an Australian Suncorp team and franchise is just gold standard,” she said.

“Even [just] coming over here to bring that level of intensity and competitiveness into this league.

“There’s so many more Australians coming over here, giving their little word of wisdom to the players that probably are unfamiliar with the intensity that’s required to play at the top level in your country.

“I think the more attractive you can make a league to other players to want to come and play for that league, the better.

“With Sacha and Tayla, if they come over, have a great season, crack into the starting seven, are on broadcast games for Australian coaches to see, there’s an argument that it’s almost like their year to get match time under their belt that a training partner back home may not get just being in that environment the whole time.”

COVID away from home

Like for most on a sporting and individual level, the start of 2020 came with a swathe of uncertainty.

The VNSL returned on February 22, with the Sirens barely dropping their season opener by two goals to the London Pulse. It was another close loss to 2019 finalists Loughborough Lightning the week after, but the side could sense something was building.

An eight goal victory over the Surrey Storm proved just that. But reports of a possible pandemic were beginning to circulate.

Barely a week later, and the season was off for good.

The internationals of the league were faced with a dilemma that no one wants to have to answer; was it time to abandon ship? No one quite knew how long, or what impact this new disease would have.

Abernethy describes herself as very settled in Scotland by this point. She had grown to love her new team, and herself and her partner were living comfortably.

Watching fellow Australian and teammate Natalie Bright jump on the first flight home to Western Australia had her contemplating her own choices in a difficult time.

“There was always the voice in the back of my head going ‘go now, because you might not be able to in a month or so’,” Abernethy said.

“Our league got postponed six weeks, initially until they figured out what was going on. It wasn’t until after that six weeks, then they called called the league off.

“I think [there’s] two parts into why I stayed. One, my boyfriend is over here. His work was still carrying on as normal from home.

“To leave him in this side of the world in a pandemic, I didn’t feel would have sat right with me, just like if he left and left me over here. We were committed to supporting each other through that.

“The other part would be just being captain of the side. It didn’t sit right with me if I abandoned ship and just went home.

“We had six weeks of just waiting, and I wanted to make sure I was here fulfilling my role and checking in on everyone.

“As hard as it was, I’m really glad I stayed and was able to be in contact with the team and the franchise. They’ve been so supportive of all of us players to carry out that leadership role and just be there to support.

“No one knew how everyone was feeling, reacting, going to react, what was going to happen. So to sort of leave and disconnect with that contact daily wouldn’t have sat right with me.”

What the forcible break due to the pandemic did do was give Abernethy a greater appreciation for what she has.

The improvement in the Sirens side was clear to see, finishing the year in sixth with a 10-2-8 record. This qualified them for the Fast5 competition, which wrapped up on Saturday with Team Bath running out winners.

More important than the on field reward for Abernethy though was the bond that was forever formed off field.

Training together, holding video calls, keeping each other sane, all that just solidified a team culture that had been building over her time there.

“As you imagine, with any event that occurs in team sport, it’s one that unless you’re in that inner sanctum, you wouldn’t understand what it’s like,” Abernethy said.

“It’s a nice feeling to see that everyone else stuck through it with you, rode the pandemic out, and then got to enjoy the season that came at the end of it because of all the patience that we put in through the lockdown.

“There’s girls on the team that have been there since my first day at Sirens when I moved over, who now I obviously call family over here.

“When you play a team sport, you see those girls every day, if not twice a day… you see them more than your family.

“I’m not built for individual sports. Team sports have given me way too many memories and friendships to ever want to start an argument against that.”

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