Neville’s dream has become reality after reaching final
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