Tears, champagne and relief after rural netball team breaks years-long drought

Tears, champagne and relief after rural netball team breaks years-long drought

In the game of netball, wing defenders are the grafters; the unsung heroes of the team, who work tirelessly to help other players look good, rarely winning individual honours but making an impact with every action. 

It’s appropriate then that Rachel Torney – who this year took a team of netballers from her tiny Victorian town of Undera, population 545, from winless since mid-2019 to a string of victories in season 2023 – was a dynamite wing defence in her playing days.

Rachel Torney is the proud coach of Undera’s A-grade netball team.(Siren Sport/ABC Sport: Kylie Murphy)

The same dedication to team and tactical nous that saw Torney named in not one, but two “teams of the century” in regional Victoria, helped the side she coached, Undera Football Netball Club’s A grade, to break an almost three-season drought and win not one, but five games.

A win that tastes like a premiership

In scenes reminiscent of a grand final win, tears and champagne flowed after Torney’s Lions – long considered the easy beats of the 14-team Kyabram District league – beat Longwood at Undera by a massive 45 goals this year. 

The team went on to bank four more wins and finish 10th. 

“I can’t actually talk about that day against Longwood without crying,” Torney said, recalling the faces of the “long-time supporters around the court, the ones who’ve been there for the long haul, beaming, tears in their eyes.”

“Even though I’ve won premierships over the years, it’s a day I’ll never forget.

“That’s because we built this team from the ground up – with a focus on getting locals back involved in the club – and then the floods hit, so it’s been a journey.”

Rachel feels a strong connection to the town of Undera.(Siren Sport/ABC Sport: Kylie Murphy)

Like so many grassroots clubs, Undera – where Torney played nearly 200 senior games, on the back of 200 for Bacchus Marsh Football Netball Club – struggled post-COVID, losing players, members, volunteers and sponsors.

“It felt like the whole club was just sort of fading away a bit. Even though I wasn’t involved, it was hard to watch, as there was so little success,” she said of the club, found in irrigation country about 26 kilometres north-west of Shepparton in the Goulburn Valley.

Undera’s Lions have defied the odds to survive as a club.(Siren Sport/ABC Sport: Kylie Murphy)

When Torney’s horse trainer husband Justin decided he would “go home in 2023” to coach the under-18s at the Lions, their 17-year-old son Reve jumped onboard too, keen to be coached by his dad.

“As a family, we’ve always liked to be involved in the same club, so I committed to coaching A grade,” she said.

“Having played and coached a lot over the years, I knew I had something to give, even though my body doesn’t let me play anymore.

After giving up playing, Rachel enjoys coaching netball.(Siren Sport/ABC Sport: Kylie Murphy)

“I started making some calls, reaching out to the existing playing group, and trying to get locals back to the club, as some had drifted away.

“I knew if we were to build the club back up, it had to be all about the locals.

“The conversations started and then suddenly the floods hit in October, which were so devastating across the Goulburn Valley and along the Murray River. It was an awful time for so many at our club.”

‘Everyone was crying’

Undera isn’t a team used to winning.(Siren Sport/ABC Sport: Kylie Murphy)

But post-flood, Torney, who works as a florist in nearby Shepparton, persisted and the netball club ended up with too many players for its seven grades, which range from under-11 to A grade.

“The promise was simple really: I would bring the good vibes, I would get them fit and then we could maybe do anything – and it worked,” she said.

“We got old players back, fresh players, some who had had babies, some who had never played much netball at all. The numbers were unlike anything the club had seen.

“We had practice matches in the pre-season and I could feel it. The bonds building, the high-fives at training, the turning up early, the group chats pinging … all the things that make great netball teams great.

Strong bonds between players have helped re-build the Lions.(Siren Sport/ABC Sport: Kylie Murphy)

“I was excited for the first round because I knew they didn’t yet understand how well they’d bonded, how special what was happening was.”

While showing promise in the opening rounds, the Lions didn’t win their first game since July 2019 – which was against the Redlegs of Longwood – until a few weeks in.

Before 2023, the last time Undera won a game was in 2019.(Siren Sport/ABC Sport: Kylie Murphy)

“We knew we’d be a show against Longwood, but I didn’t dare to dream, as it’d been such a long time since we’d won and sometimes that in itself can be a barrier to players,” Torney said.

“But wow … everything I’d talked about for months, the things I wanted them to do for each other on the court, it all happened that day. They played the perfect game and the excitement levels grew as the game went on. It was something to behold.

“When that whistle went … it was elation. The girls all ran in, embraced each other, embraced me, screaming. The emotions all came pouring out.

“It felt like a grand final, it really did. They were crying, I was crying. Everyone was crying.”

Rachel has since overseen more wins for her team.(Siren Sport/ABC Sport: Kylie Murphy)

Several of Torney’s players kept their maroon, blue and gold dresses on – as is traditional for netball premiership sides – into the night.

“We had some tunes in the clubrooms, dancing and a few beverages, but it all wrapped up pretty early for me. It had been such an emotional and draining day. I sat there and watched the girls enjoy themselves. They deserved it,” she said.

“It made it all worth it, not just what my team had done, but what everyone around the club had done … all the thousands of jobs that it takes to keep a footy/netball club ticking along that someone has to do.”

Undera is a close community, with sport at the heart of it.(Siren Sport/ABC Sport: Kylie Murphy)

Other grades of football and netball also enjoyed success in 2023, including Torney’s husband and son’s under-18 side, which went deep into the finals.

On the drought-breaking day, all bar one side won.

“For a tiny town like Undera, footy and netball matter, they really do. We don’t even have a pub at the moment, so when you say it’s the meeting place, a spot for the community to gather, it really is,” Torney said.

Any Undera game is an event in town.(Siren Sport/ABC Sport: Kylie Murphy)

Angela Banbury, the general manager of netball development at Netball Victoria, agreed, describing clubs like Undera as “the lifeblood” of small towns.

She applauded Undera’s focus on locals.

“Focusing on long-term engagement is often more important than bringing in a successful team for one season … that approach just puts you back at square one the following year,” she said.

“Someone like Rachel can be a terrific drawcard to build that culture and re-engage people in the on and off-court value of being involved in a netball club.”

There’s a team of netballers out Undera way who definitely agree.

ABC Sport is partnering with Siren Sport to elevate the coverage of Australian women in sport.

Erin Delahunty is a freelance sports and feature writer.

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