Quietly-spoken Emily Mannix making her own goal keeper mould

Helen Housby of the Swifts and Emily Mannix of the Vixens compete for the ball Jason McCawley/Getty Images

As a rookie Diamond, Emily Mannix aspired to be just like Australia's star goal keeper.

With her physicality, booming voice and intimidating presence, Sharni Norder (nee Layton) was not only captain of her country but one of the best defenders in the world.

It was 2017, and Mannix, 23 was an emerging player for the Melbourne Vixens in its inaugural Super Netball season and had just earned selection on her first Australian tour.

Despite her obvious talent and potential, the quietly-spoken Mannix questioned whether she had what, she perceived, it took to be an elite defender.

She remained true to who she was and in 2024 is enjoying a career-best campaign. And Mannix now has Norder in her corner, officially, as Vixens defensive coach and unofficially, as No.1 cheerleader.

"I'd often compare myself to Sharni, that I wasn't like her and I wasn't intimidating. I went about business in my own way and it took me a little while to realise everyone is different and that's OK," Mannix told ESPN.

"I thought a goal keeper had to be this really loud, intimidating and aggressive player and I'm probably none of those things. So, it was making the role my own and it took me a few years to figure out you can still be intimidating and aggressive in your own way.

"I haven't changed or tried to be something I'm not which I am proud of because you can get caught up comparing yourself."

Norder has long admired Mannix and believes she's been the best goal keeper in the country for some time.

"Em's quiet and unassuming but has this natural, innate ability to read the play and just get on with the job. She's never rolling her eyes, never complaining, she's a bloody work horse," she explains.

"It doesn't matter who she's playing with she's like this chameleon that can shape herself to bring the best out of others as well. She's always been a really strong defender but been underrated because she's not loud or vocal and doesn't have attention seeking habits that I perhaps had or other defenders might have in their game."

Now in her second season coaching with the Vixens, Norder has seen the 30-year-old vice-captain flourish.

"I just wanted her to know how great she was. I didn't know if she lacked confidence but if she could back herself in and have someone telling her 'You're fast, you're quick, you're agile, you read the play, you work well with other players' all these things that are such crucial parts of a thinking-defender's game, then I wanted to see what would come of that.

"She has this really great presence of knowing where the ball is, how to dictate play, how to work as a unit and communicate and be intimidating and her game has grown in its own beautiful way."

For Mannix, Norder's passion and energy is contagious.

"Sharni has added something different to our defensive group. She's so enthusiastic, you can hear her a mile away, she puts a smile on everyone's face and brings a real love and energy for defence," she says.

"She's so generous with her time and is super accepting of how people play in their own ways and has been a breath of fresh air for us, we love having her involved.

"We have a defence What's App group and before and after every game Sharni is writing to us in caps, and maybe a few swear words, about how proud she is of all of us.

"And it just shows how much the game means to people. Sharni always says how her regret leaving netball and retiring was not having fun in the moment and that's something that's stuck for me because it doesn't last forever and it's not until it's over you think 'I really should have soaked that up a little bit more' so that's fed into this year for me too.

"I'm closer to the end of my career than the start and trying to enjoy all those moments whether it's travelling with the team and having inside jokes, training, winning, losing or singing the song in the change rooms."

Rather than accept recognition for her impact on the Vixens defence, Norder is quick to heap praise on the player-driven unit which has welcomed Rudi Ellis this season.

The Vixens worked in unison to restrict superstar Jhaniele Fowler-Nembhard to 45 goals in Round 7 as they handed the Fever their first defeat.

"How hard they train, the work they put it, the analysis they do, the game plans they come up with - it's all them I'm just supporting them almost as a cheerleader and telling them how great they are," Norder says.

"It's like anything in life once you get to the top there's no one supporting you. Everyone thinks that you're great so you're just expected to do a job rather than being told 'What you did today was freaking awesome and there's not many players in the world who could've done that, how great is that!' and feeling really good about it."

Mannix says allowing her mind to flow has also contributed to strong early-season form.

"Overthinking has gone out the window. When I've had rough seasons in the past, you just think about every little thing. If people were off talking to the side, I'd automatically assume they were talking about me and they wouldn't be but it's almost like a paranoia," she reveals.

"Netball is obviously one aspect of our lives but it can influence so much of the rest of your life so I feel like for me this season I've been able to go about my business and not think too much which sounds strange because of course you have decision making and are performing in pressure situations.

"I've just been enjoying it out there."

With just one defeat to their name, the Vixens are sitting second on the ladder, tied with the Fever on points but second on points differential.

Mannix notes that when skipper Liz Watson departed for the Sunshine Coast in the off-season external expectations of the Vixens weren't lost on the players.

"I think the fact people wrote us off early was sort of a good thing in a way to show us all that even with the loss of such an influential player and person we are still the Vixens," she says.

"It's not just one player that makes a club and you've got to have other people who step up when a player the calibre of Liz leaves. It gives more responsibility to others to step up and shine and that's been the case.

"I think we've been proving a lot of people wrong in this first half of the season and I'm excited to see what we can do from here."