Neville’s dream has be­come re­al­ity af­ter reach­ing fi­nal

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - Commonwealth Games - By Ben Bloom on the Gold Coast

When Eng­land star Geva Men­tor heads to her lo­cal su­per­mar­ket on Aus­tralia’s Sun­shine Coast, where she plays her club net­ball, peo­ple know who she is.

It is recog­ni­tion be­fit­ting her sta­tus as the best goal­keeper – and one of the best play­ers in any po­si­tion – on the planet. But when she re­turns to Bournemouth, where she was born and spent the first 20 years of her life, she slips back into anonymity.

Such is the bat­tle fac­ing Tracey Neville’s Eng­land team when­ever they ar­rive at a ma­jor tour­na­ment.

For the en­tirety of net­ball’s his­tory, the sport has been di­vided neatly into three fac­tions. At the top are Aus­tralia and New Zealand, the two most dom­i­nant na­tions, who had con­tested ev­ery Com­mon­wealth Games fi­nal un­til Gold Coast 2018.

Next are Eng­land and Ja­maica, who prom­ise so much but have re­peat­edly been un­able to over­come the sig­nif­i­cant hur­dle of their An­tipodean ri­vals. Then there is ev­ery­one else.

That has been the way of the net­ball world for more than 50 years, un­til now. In beat­ing New Zealand in the group stage at these Com­mon­wealth Games, over­com­ing Ja­maica in a dra­matic last-gasp 56-55 semi-fi­nal vic­tory on Satur­day and mak­ing it through to the fi­nal against Aus­tralia – a match due to take place in the early hours of Sun­day morn­ing Bri­tish-time – Eng­land have fi­nally bro­ken down the bar­rier to the up­per ech­e­lons of the sport.

“It’s a dream that I dreamed about and started the process rolling, but a dream that I never got,” said Neville. “These girls dreamed of get­ting to the fi­nal, but a lot of it comes down to money. We al­ways said that we need fund­ing, we need ex­po­sure. In Eng­land we don’t have that. We need that to get more play­ers pro­fes­sional and to get our lev­els up to the best. I’ve al­ways got a mon­e­tary noose round my neck.”

Neville is un­der no il­lu­sion of the scale of the up­hill bat­tle she faces. Since the in­cep­tion of the ANZ Cham­pi­onship – a former com­pe­ti­tion es­tab­lished in 2008 for the best teams from Aus­tralia and New Zealand – Eng­land have been play­ing catch-up both do­mes­ti­cally and in­ter­na­tion­ally.

The Su­per­league, Bri­tain’s lead­ing do­mes­tic net­ball com­pe­ti­tion, re­mains am­a­teur, de­spite an in­creased pro­file in re­cent years and greater ex­po­sure on Sky Sports. By con­trast the lead­ing Aus­tralian and New Zealand leagues, which branched out from the ANZ Cham­pi­onship last year, are semipro­fes­sional or full-time.

Half of Eng­land’s 12 play­ers at these Com­mon­wealth Games ply their trade in Aus­tralia and New Zealand, and Men­tor, who was the first to make the move in 2008, says there is lit­tle com­par­i­son with the Bri­tish set-up.

“The stan­dard of play is prob­a­bly three or four years ahead of what we are do­ing in Eng­land,” she said.

“The money is a mas­sive stand­out be­cause girls over here [in Aus­tralia] are able to be semi-pro­fes­sional, if not on full-time con­tracts, whereas in the UK the girls are still study­ing or work­ing along­side.”

All of which puts Eng­land’s achieve­ment in even mak­ing to­day’s fi­nal in per­spec­tive. They may not beat Aus­tralia, who have dom­i­nated ev­ery match through­out the tour­na­ment, but for the first time they are fight­ing on the same stage. In it­self, that is a hugely sig­nif­i­cant achieve­ment.

Trail­blazer: Geva Men­tor was the first English player to head to Aus­tralia when she moved in 2008

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