Shannon Francois set for Thunderbirds mission

BRENDON EGAN
Last updated 05:00 03/05/2012
Shannon Francois
ROBYN EDIE/Fairfax NZ
UP FOR THE CHALLENGE: Southern Steel rookie Shannon Francois faces a tough assignment against the Thunderbirds in Adelaide when she comes up against Australian star Natalie von Bertouch.

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Rookie Southern Steel midcourter Shannon Francois is bracing herself for one of the biggest challenges of her fledgling career in Adelaide on Monday night.

Francois is set to mark up against arguably the best centre in world netball in Thunderbirds and Australian star Natalie von Bertouch.

The 21-year-old Francois said she had always been a longtime admirer of von Bertouch's play and was excited at the prospect of pitting her skills against the 69-cap international.

"It will be so cool to play against her. She's so fast, is incredibly strong and pulls in crazy balls. She's always consistent.

"I'm pretty scared about Natalie von Bertouch. It should be a good test for me."

Von Bertouch has shown up many inexperienced players on the netball court over the years and Francois said it was important to have confidence in her own ability and not be overawed by the occasion.

"I need to play really tight defence on her and not let her go. She goes where she wants. I need to really focus on my defensive game."

Francois has started in the centre bib in all four of the Steel's games this season and is part of a hard-working midcourt trio that also includes Courtney Tairi and Phillipa Finch.

She said the trans-Tasman netball league was everything she had expected and more, and admitted to being overwhelmed by both the intensity and pace in her first few outings.

Francois had a superb start to the season, outplaying Silver Ferns vice-captain Laura Langman in the Steel's stunning opening-round win over the Magic. The fourth-year Otago University pharmacy student has made a pleasing start to the campaign, and former Silver Fern captain and midcourter Anna Stanley is impressed.

"She's certainly doing some good stuff," Stanley said. "She doesn't get too caught up in the fancy stuff. She looks like a player, who works hard for her team-mates. She's certainly a prospect for the future."

Francois is rated highly by Netball New Zealand officials. Late last year she went away to England with the Fastnet Ferns side, before she had even played a game at ANZ Championship level. She also attended a Silver Ferns' camp earlier this year.

The Silver Fern midcourt stocks are extremely bare following Temepara George's retirement from international netball and the departure of Liana Leota to England.

Given the lack of depth in the midcourt, Stanley said she would not be surprised if the Silver Fern selectors took a punt on a young player this season, with a long-term view towards the next world championships in 2015.

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"This is the time when the coaches will be looking to put the young ones in and build them up, so in four years' time, they've got the ability to take the court.

"The Silver Ferns are in a position where they've got to pick up anyone who's good enough (in the midcourt). Francois should at least be given a chance to be in that environment."

Francois did not get much of an opportunity to enjoy the bye last week, spending much of her time in the lab and library. She has four to five hours of class each day and juggles her training commitments around further study.

With exams looming in four weeks time, she will be taking her books with her to Adelaide, but wouldn't have it any other way.

"So far it's been pretty awesome (balancing netball and study), but exams are coming up. I had way more class last year. I've definitely got a bit of work to do," she said with a laugh.

- The Southland Times

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