Before any netball training session, a cluster of shooters will be at the post, putting up shots. When the coach calls the players in, the goalers will almost always try to sink one last shot before joining the group. It was this unremarkable ritual that helped Melbourne Vixens debutant Rahni Samason stun the netball world over the weekend.
Samason – who was not even a Super Netball training partner a week ago – starred in her first outing at the elite level on Saturday, when the 23-year-old sunk the winning super shot after the siren to secure a 66-64 win over the Firebirds.
It was the reigning premiers’ first victory this season, on the court where they claimed the title last year, and with the same final score. In those pre-training sessions, Samason said she plays out her netballing fantasies in her head.
“You say to yourself, ‘there’s one second left on the clock, quickly shoot it’ or ‘you’ve just received a long bomb from Liz Watson, you’ve got to turn and deliver’,” she said.
Deliver she did, calming knocking down her eighth super shot of the game in front of a stunned crowd at Brisbane’s Nissan Arena, after a last-gasp intercept by Kadie-Ann Dehaney and penalty by Firebird Rudi Ellis on Mwai Kumwenda, who left the ball for her junior partner.
The cool-as-ice shot – that Samason was a “little annoyed wasn’t a swish” – put a full stop on what has been described as the best debut in Australian netball history. The MVP performance also made Samason an overnight star, with her name trending on Twitter on Saturday.
At goal shooter, where she has played virtually all her netball, and goal attack, Samason finished the Indigenous Round match with 27/29 at 93% accuracy, missing only two super shots. She had five centre pass receives, 16 feeds – 11 which led to attempts on goal by Kumwenda, who finished with 29/32 – and she took an intercept.
She also employed a clever, but rarely seen throw-in tactic, where a shooter bounces the ball off the post, gets back on court, collects it and then shoots.
Samason filled a gaping hole left by Caitlin Thwaites and Tegan Philip, who retired last year, and which new Vixens Kaylia Stanton and Ruby Barkmeyer have failed to plug.
After a phone call just a few days earlier asking her to become a training partner, as she was in 2018, Samason was told on Wednesday she was in the squad for Brisbane and flew out of Victoria that night. A few hours before the match, in Vixens kit for the first time, she was told she would start.
Standing in the circle before the first whistle, Samason was able to take a breath. “Standing at the back end of the court, you look at everything, you take it all in,” she said. “At that moment it was like ‘oh god, do I even know how to run? How do I catch and pass?’.
“But as soon as I got the ball in my hand, I thought, ‘OK, I’ve done this millions of times before. It’s nothing different, now I’ve got more eyes on me’.”
Samason’s debut was the stuff of dreams, especially given she has played only five games of competitive netball in nearly three years. In 2018, playing for the Victorian Fury in the now-defunct Australian Netball League, Samason won league MVP, but suffered an anterior cruciate ligament injury post-season.
It saw her miss the entire 2019 season as she rehabilitated at the Victorian Institute of Sport – serendipitously alongside Kumwenda, who was also coming back from an ACL. And although she was ready, she did not take to the court in 2020, as minor Victorian leagues were shelved due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Returning in the Victorian Netball League for Melbourne-based Ariels in late April, Samason picked up where she left off in 2018, dominating and shooting at about 90% accuracy in the first five matches. Her form was irresistible to Vixens coach Simone McKinnis, who pre-game focused her young charge’s mind on what she could bring, and nothing else.
“There wasn’t talk about outside stuff; pressure, the Vixens not having won a game, family in Melbourne, Covid, nothing. It was, ‘this is the game right now and this is what we’re going to do’, which was great for me, because I like to focus on the present.”
After such an eye-popping entrée, it’s easy to see why Vixens – and perhaps even Australian Diamonds – fans are thinking further ahead. Given injured Emily Mannix, who she replaced this round, remains unavailable, Samason is surely a lock for the Vixens’ round six clash with the Thunderbirds, which was meant to be played in Melbourne.
Under contracting rules, it is also possible for Samason to be added to the Vixens’ squad of 10, although that would require someone else dropping out. She may be used as a training partner and elevated when needed.
And despite being eligible for a New Zealand passport through her father Tai, who was born in the Cook Islands, Samason has no plans to defect. “There’s no risk of me running away, no.” What she does want to do is “develop and get better” after what she describes as a “good” start. And that’s a mouth-watering prospect for all netball fans.