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Wallam remains upbeat about shining like a Diamond heading into 2024 Test season

Andrew Mathieson -

There was a bittersweet moment for Donnell Wallam returning close to three years to the day after first arriving in chilly Leeds in January earlier this year.

Then, in 2021, the Noongar woman was all but plucked from relative obscurity to play in Great Britain’s Netball Superleague following the 30-year-old’s embryonic career that barely began in the West Australian state competition.

She was probably already more than 10 years behind in development from where most of her state peers were, let alone new Leeds teammates, aside from nine other sides of rivals including a plethora of internationals.

“That was the start of my career, I feel like,’’ Wallam told CODE Sports ahead of her return to the Yorkshire city for the new-look Netball Nations Cup.

“I mean, looking back on when I was at Leeds Rhinos, I never had thought it was even possible for me to be now in the Australian squad travelling back there and on tours and stuff, so I’m just really grateful that that was my journey.’’

Wallam proved to be a smash hit on the court in a country that not just the weather was entirely foreign to the West Australian that had never left the state before in her life.

Wallam’s season playing for state club West Coast Warriors in 2019 came about after the ex-state league basketballer even thought she was not good enough at that level.

But accompanied with an unaccustomed basketball leap in the rival sport, Wallam’s lack of confidence was unproven following a sweep of the state netball awards night, taking home the league’s season MVP, the player’s player of the year, the goal shooter of the year and also the grand final MVP.

That rookie club performance in a sport that was previously nothing more than social netball in her hometown of Harvey spurned a planned stint the following season for the Western Sting in the Australian Netball League, a feeder competition for the nation’s elite Suncorp Super Netball.

But the 2020 season was cancelled in the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. But the word spread fast. That recognition was enough to alert the attention of scouts ahead of the 2021 debut season of the Leeds Rhinos that emerged largely from the professional surrounds of a historically successful rugby league club of the same name.

“This will be my first time back to Leeds, so I’m really excited about that,’’ she says.

“And once the squad was announced, there were a few of the Rhinos fans reach out saying that they were looking forward to seeing me again and that is really nice and really special going back there.

“I feel like I’ve always got a home in Leeds.’’

The journey continued from the Rhinos to current club Queensland Firebirds and into the Super Netball in what was amazing transition from basketball in just three years.

Another starring debut season in a fourth consecutive new competition had Wallam’s name penned down for a surprise Test selection to confront familiar English faces but on her Brisbane home court.

But the real drama happened in the days before the Test where it was once reported that Wallam refused to wear the new Diamonds sponsorship of Hancock Prospecting over offensive remarks that owner Gina Rinehart’s late father, Lang Hancock, made of West Australian Aboriginal communities.

While the sponsorship worth around $15 million across four years was withdrawn soon after, a number of news publications, including the National Indigenous Times, later discovered that a Netball Australia board member convinced Wallam to take a stance that turned into the blame.

The well-documented narrative on the court played out with Wallam substituted late in the Test, and scoring the winning goal in the dramatic final-second shot of the match.

For Wallam, she must have thought after a “tough” debut, playing for Australia would only become easier.

But despite shooting a high percentage of goals in front of the net, the burly, stay-at-home goal shooter has been restricted to a limited number of accrued appearances.

It is just six Tests, 18 months on. Australia has played more than three times as much in that time.

But the third First Nations player to represent the Diamonds after Marcia Ella-Duncan first did over 18 times across 1986-87 and Sharon Finnan-White last did 20 times from 1990-2000 remains optimistic.

“I feel like I improved as each game came along,” Wallam says.

“For me, it was just having confidence in my own ability.

“I just think the more time out on court, the more experience I get, and then that just kind of builds my confidence.’’

Australian sides of late – all during Wallam’s time – tend to rotate its squad around to maximise the wealth of depth of having four hybrid goalers, plus a shooter specialist in Wallam, capable of filling the two scoring options on court.

Wallam only played once in the Netball Nations Cup between England, New Zealand, Uganda and Australia, and that appearance was against rising rookie, Uganda – and only so after the Diamonds had already qualifying for the final – rather than against either of the other two established giants of the game.

Nobody in netball circles would have been surprised then for Wallam to travel to England for three matches – essentially four as Australia expectedly reached and won the final – and two of them were in Leeds, than just to sit in the stands, rubbing her hands together, only to keep warm, rather than over enthusiastically playing.

After all, Wallam did not make the cut six months earlier for the Netball World Cup in South Africa where she was named one of the three travelling emergencies.

“I was pretty happy with my (2023) year in netball; even just getting the experience to go over to South Africa and experience what Netball World Cup is like, and to be able to stay in the program full-time,’’ Wallam says.

“And just to watch the girls win – that was probably my highlight; that was incredible watching from the sidelines. Amazing.

“And I think, just personally, my netball is just getting better, and working on what I need to improve.

“Now that I made the Nations Cup, I feel like it’s back-to-back tournaments for me, so it means I’m doing something right.’’

It speaks for a netballer that has spent more years shooting for at a basketball ring than a netball hoop.

It also says a lot for someone that is mature enough to understand at 30, Wallam was in a world that she never could imagine.

“It was a bit hard mentally, hearing you didn’t make the squad after you thought you have had a good season,” Wallam says, “but I’m just grateful that I have played in the South African series.’’

Wallam averaged 12 goals per Test against South Africa at 88 per cent across just five quarters.

But right now, she is unsure whether the next Netball World Cup is a realistic target in 2027.

Finnan-White won two gold medals from the 1991 and 1995 World Cup appearances while Ella-Duncan claimed a silver in 1987.

The 2026 Commonwealth Games is the first hurdle to jump after organisers are still looking for a venue host after the Victorian government withdrew its hosting rights, putting the quadrennial netball event in serious jeopardy.

“Looking realistically, I’ve turning 30 a couple of weeks ago, so it’s probably unlikely,’’ Wallam says.

“But I’m just gonna take every opportunity that I can, and keep playing netball while my body allows me to.’’

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