by Craig Wright
After 2016 saw a number of University of Stirling students make the sporting headlines, the next twelve months could be just as significant for another member of Scotland’s university for sporting excellence.
In late October, the squad for the newly-formed Sirens Netball franchise was announced ahead of the 2017 Vitality Superleague season. Amongst the players unveiled was Stirling’s very own Lauren Tait, and the 20-year-old is clearly loving life as part of Scotland’s only professional netball outfit.
“It’s been so good!” says Tait. “The players in the Sirens are obviously the best in Scotland and we’ve got really good people who have come in from abroad – their experience is insane!”
The Sirens have certainly recruited well ahead of their debut season. Jamaica’s Althea Byfield will provide a wealth of experience to the side’s defence, having won 112 international caps to date. Meanwhile, at the other end of the court, Ellen Halpenny (right) will return to the city in which she claimed a silver medal at the 2014 Commonwealth Games, with the New Zealander offering a clinical attacking edge.
There’s also an experienced hand at the helm of the new franchise. Former New Zealand legend Gail Parata will combine her duties as Scottish national coach with the head coach role at the Sirens, with Tait quick to acknowledge the value of Parata’s influence on the squad.
“It’s so important to have that knowledge around. Gail has so much experience from playing the game herself, and her coaching technique is so good. The fact she’s also the national coach is also a bonus – you know that what she’s doing is 100% the right thing.”
The connection between the national setup and the new franchise has been quickly established, with Scotland captain Claire Brownie amongst several internationals joining the franchise. With young Scottish talent like Tait also joining the squad ahead of the new campaign, is this pre-established connection important to the side?
Tait nods: “I think it is, yeah. Having trained with some of the girls at a national level, you know how each other play, how to pick each other up after a bad day and how to spur each other on in training. Having known these girls before, you know they share your desire to do well.”
Indeed, 2016 has been a successful year for both Tait and Scottish netball overall. As well as being named as Scotland under-21 player of the year, Tait was also part of the Scottish under-21 squad that recently finished second at the Youth World Cup qualifiers. That result saw them secure their place at the tournament in Botswana next summer, and the Stirling student is eagerly looking ahead to the competition in store.
“We recently got drawn into our groups [Scotland will face New Zealand, Sri Lanka, Northern Ireland and Samoa] and we obviously want to make as big an impression as we can. Netball in Scotland is growing and we want to be one of the leading sports in the country.
“Having that success in the qualifiers was unbelievable – to beat Wales and Northern Ireland was massive, as was finishing second in that qualifying tournament for the first time in years.”
That drive to become one of the leading sports in Scotland is likely to only be further enhanced by the creations of the Sirens as a franchise, with a professional contract now a tangible goal for many young girls across the country. It’s a goal that Tait is keen to reinforce when asked about the importance of the franchise.
“We’re obviously aiming to get more people involved with netball, and having the Sirens really does give us that added extra of being able to show girls that you can make a career out of this and it doesn’t have to just be a hobby. If you keep working hard, you can go professional, and the pathways and initiatives that the Sirens can hopefully offer young girls are so important.”
As well having signed professional terms with the Sirens, Tait is also juggling university and work commitments as she prepares for the season ahead. So just how is she adapting to the life of a student athlete?
“It’s been difficult!” she laughs. “I’m obviously in my third year of uni, alongside the Sirens and the national setup, and I’ve got a part-time job to fund all this. So you could say spare time is limited!
“Thankfully, though, I’m in the Scottish Institute of Sport and there’s a lot of really good people helping us all there. I’ve got a lifestyle coach who helps me organise my training, and Gail and the other coaches have been great. They understand my situation and give me leeway – if I say I’ve got an exam, they’re not going to say you have to miss it!”
The Sirens begin their season with a home match at Glasgow’s Emirates Arena (above) against Wasps on 21 February. With the amount of talent at coach Parata’s disposal, Tait is confident the side will quickly establish themselves at the business end of the Superleague.
“We’re aiming for top four at the end of the season. We had a meeting with all the coaching and playing staff and Gail sat us down and said “this is what we’re going for. Do you think that’s reasonable?” Everyone immediately answered yes.
“Having that aim really pushes you on. We want to make an impact and make our mark on the league.”
With aims like that, expect to hear a lot more about both the Sirens and Tait in 2017.