The Silver Ferns enter their final matches before defending their Netball World Cup title in July boosted by the return of defender Karin Burger. And Burger herself has a massive boost - with family and friends courtside for the first time.
The last time Karin Burger visited her home country of South Africa, she was in a moonboot, unable to play netball.
This time, she'll play in the black dress for the first time in the country where she spent her first 18 years.
And on her next trip, she might leave holding the Netball World Cup.
The Silver Ferns open their Quad Series campaign on Sunday morning against hosts South Africa. It’s a welcome return to the black dress for star defender Burger, with the added bonus of doing it surrounded by her friends and family.
The 29-year-old suffered a major setback after the final of the ANZ Premiership last year, an ongoing foot injury requiring surgery and ruling her out of the Silver Ferns for six months.
One silver lining of the injury meant Burger had time to visit her family in South Africa - something she hadn’t done since before the Covid outbreak. The trip was a welcome distraction she says.
“It was just nice spending that quality time with them and having that distraction away from netball while I was injured,” Burger says, being able to meet her nephew for the first time.
“It really helped mentally and possibly physically refresh myself as well, being able to spend that time there. And once I got back, I was mentally in a good space to just hit the ground running and do whatever I needed to recover and get to where I am now.”
Burger is one of the three athletes returning to the Silver Ferns for the Quad Series, alongside Gina Crampton, who took sabbatical leave after the Commonwealth Games, and Jane Watson, who welcomed her first baby, daughter Tia, in May.
The return of Watson - Burger's defensive buddy at the Tactix - after a year apart is an exciting prospect for the duo, and Ferns fans alike.
“Having not played together for a while, obviously there are a few teething issues, like any combo but I feel like we’ll pick up on it quite quickly,” Burger says.
“We both play very much on feeling - as much as there is structure, it’s very much a feeling thing as well. So we just need to get that feel for each other again and I’m sure it will hopefully look great again.”
Burger says there’s plenty of competition for baby Tia’s attention, with three other mums in the team and plenty of aunties around.
“It’s amazing, it’s a good distraction for us as well - being able to see baby and break away from netball for a bit is actually quite nice.
“You can’t walk past her and not smile and play with her.”
Burger had a fracture in her navicular bone in her right foot, and had surgery in June to insert a screw and shave a section of bone, with the recovery process taking six months.
“There was a really, really solid plan put in place for me,” Burger describes of her return to play programme, including building up her fitness to where it was pre-injury.
“I had the likes of coaches, physios, strength and conditioning coaches, doctors, surgeons and everyone involved in the whole process in making sure the plan was proper and as good as it could possibly be and I was following it.”
Self-described as someone who hates sitting still, it was a long break from the game for Burger.
“As frustrating and as slow as it may have felt for me, it was a solid plan,” she says.
“It felt like I was progressing fast and well enough to ensure the foot recovered really well and I didn’t end up having any other niggles or any other issues.”
Burger’s six months away from the Ferns environment included missing out on the Commonwealth Games, an underwhelming series against Jamaica and a tightly fought Constellation Cup against Australia.
“Part of me feels like the time I was away was ages,” she says, noting how quickly things can change and adapt.
“There were a few things that had evolved in the way we do things, the structures and the language we use that I needed to pick up on quite quickly.
“But in terms of the environment and the people and getting back into things, I felt like I was just slotting back into it and I didn’t feel like I was out of place at all.”
With the absence of Burger and Watson, Kelly Jury has been a standout in the defensive circle for the Silver Ferns, with young Kate Heffernan making her debut and impressing with the wing defence bib.
“Since I’ve been out, the likes of Whitney [Souness] and Kate have really stamped their mark out there,” Burger says.
“It’s amazing for me to learn, to play with them and to understand them as well, as individuals. It’s exciting to have them and their fresh perspective and seeing how the combos work and seeing their athleticism as well.”
With the Quad Series likely being the last international hit out for the Silver Ferns before the Netball World Cup begins in July, Burger has set herself some goals to ensure she’s part of the team returning to Cape Town.
“For me, it’s getting out there and feeling comfortable with my game and obviously solidifying some court time as well so I feel comfortable going into the ANZ season,” she says.
“Knowing what the little things are that I need to work on to improve my game and be a better player so that when the World Cup comes around, I can overall be a better player and on court, play even better than I am at the moment.
“I think it’s just having patience with myself, knowing this is my first international series in about a year, but I do like challenging myself so I want to be happy with my performance and try solidify some court time.”
Burger has spent time at both goal and wing defence for the Silver Ferns, and says she has no preference where coach Dame Noeline Taurua places her on court.
“My goal in terms of playing both positions is regardless of which one I am, I’m focused on that one and giving it my all,” she says.
“I think that’s my challenge for the ANZ season as well, knowing there’s possibility for a slide and not trying to find my feet in either but doing my job 100 percent when I do get put on either.”
Burger returned to South Africa last year to reunite with her family.
Facing the country of her birth on Sunday, Burger will play in front of most of her family and friends for the very first time, a momentous occasion she’s not trying to dwell on too much.
“I’m trying to not get too distracted by that sort of thing, it’s just amazing getting that family connection and breaking away from netball,” she says, spending her few hours off per day with family.
“There is that slight pressure in the back of my mind that I want to play good for my family, and the amount of friends and supporters that I know of and heard of that are also coming to watch.
“It’s that pressure of knowing I want to be my best and play my best in front of them and to show them what I do on a day to day basis but also not letting that distract me from my job and focusing on what I need to do. So it’s finding that fine balance and utilising those emotions to be a better player rather than letting it distract me and affect my game.”
*The Quad Series begins on Sunday, with the Silver Ferns taking on South Africa at 2.30am NZT on Sky Sport 3. They then play Australia on Monday at 5am, England on Wednesday at 3am with the finals on Thursday.