The World At Stake
Netball’s biggest events are no longer countdowns to inevitable Aussies vs Kiwis tournament deciders. This month’s World Cup in England will well and truly prove that.
Netball’s World Cup is no longer a countdown to an inevitable Aussies vs Kiwis tournament decider.
In Keeley Devery’s current role as Head of Netball for broadcast rights-holder Nine, the keen student of netball history has been able to revive some memories of the sport’s under-rated international past. Devery’s interest is not just professional but deeply personal and includes a few reminiscences of her own.
Once upon a time, Devery was a New South Wales and Australian defender who combined her tertiary studies with an exceptional representative career. Now 54, Devery made her Test debut in 1985 and retired over a decade later with 63 Caps, two world championship titles, an OAM, a trillion rebounds, one reconstructed knee and a sports journalism degree.
Her biggest moment came in Sydney in 1991 when, at an event still known as the world championships, a team yet to be christened as the Diamonds beat their New Zealand rivals 53-52 to regain the crown lost to the Silver Ferns in Glasgow four years earlier.
The most shocking thing, though? Australia noticed.
“Bob Hawke was there, and it was the first
time an Australian Prime Minister had been to a women’s sport event, apart from the Olympics,” Devery recalls. “It drew what was a record crowd [10,050] at that stage, it was live on the ABC, it was called live on radio, and the game was unbelievable.
“There’s been some of those amazing Australia-New Zealand games since, in extraovertime and everything, but this was one of those games that the next day, people were talking about it. I remember that a few of us had been invited to go to a NSW rugby match on the Sunday, and so many people stopped to chat that, we were like, ‘Oh my God, people really watched it!’ Or they knew about it. They’d heard or seen the result.”
Almost three decades later, the Australian Diamonds are preparing to defend what in 2015 became their 11th title from 14 attempts when Liverpool hosts the Netball World Cup. Devery is unwittingly pinching a line from the current PM when she says of the original pioneers from the inaugural World Tournament in 1963: “When you think about it, those women, how good are they?” The significance of 1991 was in the overdue but significant
IT’S ALWAYS BEEN A WORLD CUP, BUT IT’S ANYONE’S WORLD CUP. AND THE DEPTH IS JUST GOING TO GET BETTER AND BETTER.
profile building. So where does 2019 fit?
“It’s the depth of the competition,” says Devery. “It’s a real World Cup. It’s always been a World Cup, but it’s anyone’s World Cup. And the depth is just going to get better and better.”
As discussed previously in these pages, one of the major equalisation measures at play has been the unlimited import rule introduced for 2017’s inaugural Suncorp Super Netball season. When England stunningly toppled the Diamonds to claim 2018 Commonwealth Games gold, it was with hefty input from SSN standouts such as Geva Mentor, Jo Harten and Serena Guthrie, while the winning penalty was shot by Helen Housby, a starting Swift.
New Zealand, who had gone it alone since the dissolution of the old trans-Tasman club competition and banned its players from national duty if they chose to compete across the ditch, had a stinker, losing to Malawi and finishing without a medal for the first time. Current world ranking: 4th.
But it was England’s coronation that signalled the end of netball as we had long known it. The last time one of the two major championships did not feature the Aussies and Kiwis squaring off for the big prize was when South Africa – with the great Irene Van Dyk in the shooting circle – pinched an unexpected world championship silver in 1985.
Karla Pretorius, the Proteas’ current standout, was not even born then, but knows enough about Australia’s dominance and the trans-Tasman duopoly to understand the impact of events on the Gold Coast. “It’s gonna almost make you believe that it is possible,” she says. “So I think it’s really great for world netball that there’s a more even playing field.”
Former Australian greats are torn between shock/sorrow and bigger-picture optimism. “Did I see it coming? I mean, we’ve been seeing it coming for a long time now, really,” says former captain Sharelle McMahon of the Roses’ rise. “I think back to one of my World Cup jaunts in 2003 and we only just got over the top of England to make it into the final [in Kingston].
“People kind of forget how close they’ve been for so long, and because they hadn’t taken that last step, it feels like they
haven’t been in the hunt, but they have. And this is a result of some of their athletes taking the risk of coming out here and playing in Super Netball; that’s absolutely strengthened England’s side, as it probably has done for Jamaica, too, and South Africa.
“I think that’s great, and I know that some people coming from a different angle have a different idea, and that’s also fair enough. But I think that as a sport if we are to survive and thrive, we need more than just the usual suspects being successful. So it was heartbreaking watching what happened up on the Gold Coast in that gold medal match, but it certainly gives it something extra this year.”
Much soul-searching followed the Commonwealth Games loss, with criticism of the rotation policy, and the admission from coach Lisa Alexander that the Diamonds’ hot form leading into the gold medal game had seduced them into overconfidence. She promised to do things differently on a finals eve in the future, and admitted on playersvoice. com.au: “We underestimated our opponent. It didn’t happen intellectually, but obviously it happened inside everyone’s deepest subconscious, and we have to examine that and get better for next time.”
Still, Alexander has been happy to share the pre-tournament hype with the hosts. “I actually prefer to go under the radar a little bit, and make sure there’s lot of pressure on, particularly England, to perform in their home country,” she says. “We can just get on with the business of playing really well, and making sure that we’re playing well at the end of the tournament so that we give ourselves every chance of winning a gold medal. But it’s going to be very, very tough.
“I definitely feel that Jamaica, New Zealand and even South Africa have got the ability on the day to beat anybody, so it’s not a fait accompli. We are world number-one, so we can feel great comfort in that in terms of confidence about what we do as a [national] program, but we’ve also got to be mindful that those other countries are improving at a rapid rate; we can’t take anything for granted.
“We have to understand that any of those top five teams could, on their day, produce a match-winning performance. So we have to
JAMAICA, NEW ZEALAND AND EVEN SOUTH AFRICA HAVE GOT THE ABILITY ON THE DAY TO BEAT ANYBODY.
be doing our best at the end of the week, and I’m very confident that if we are that we will get over the line.”
Certainly, Jamaica is right in the conversation, due to their strengths in both goal circles and the presence of Jhaniele Fowler, the world’s most prolific goaler. The most exciting young defender? That title might well go to Shamera Sterling, a firstyear Adelaide Thunderbird and emerging rival for Pretorius as queen of the intercept.
McMahon rates the Sunshine Girls as less predictable than the other main contenders, partly because so few members of their midcourt are regularly seen outside Caribbean shores, and also because of a more static, aerial game style than some of their slicker rivals boast. That nevertheless presents challenges of its own.
The baby-faced Sterling lacks nothing much at all, including confidence, and a McDonald’s-heavy diet that seems to have little impact on her light, long-limbed frame. “I think we could actually go there and dominate,” says the Montego Bay native. “We are heading to be top four and the finals, and just take it from there.’’
Yet outside the four medal contenders, and further down beyond the emerging but still resource-poor South Africa and a Malawian team sadly missing its injured superstar Mwai Kumwenda – who led all scorers in Sydney four years ago - there remains a yawning gap between the haves and have-pretty-much-nothings.
Former Diamonds captain Vicki Wilson, now the coach of Fiji, tells her friend Devery of needing to supply some of her athletes with sports bras, and of the time she asked a player why she had missed training, then hearing she had not been able to afford the bus fare.
England is in a superior financial bracket, and even boasts a doctor in its ranks. Thunderbirds co-captain Layla Guscoth was on night duty in Bristol’s Southmead Hospital for what was a momentous day
– or, well, very early morning, back in her birthplace. “Obviously it was a massive change, not just for the players on court and the staff involved, but for England,” she says of the event that has helped to drive a surge in both interest and participation. “That success puts netball in a great spot, and I’m excited to be on that journey with them.”
Guscoth’s NWC buzzword is belief. In her team’s strategy and plan. In its ability to beat not just the Diamonds and Ferns but “all the teams that were once seen to be untouchable, and that’s what is instilled within the group now. There’s no game that is too big for us, so I think that will really help going into July”.
“BEFORE, IT WAS ALWAYS LIKE ‘OH YAY, WORLD CUP’ BUT YOU’D KNOW IT WAS GOING TO BE AUSTRALIA AND NEW ZEALAND IN THE FINAL.”
Mentor admits the ramifications come in the form of a target on the Roses’ backs. “I know the Aussies weren’t happy with what happened last year, so I think the target on our back is definitely with an Australian eye looking at that,” smiles the Magpies’ captain, a success magnet to whom others are drawn. “I fan-girl Geva all the time,” laughs Guscoth, who also sees the humour in all those Aussies fuming about the good-for-netball aspect of the Gold Coast result. “We laugh, because they do get really annoyed by it! We love it, but they don’t. I think for a number of years – and I am going to say this as an English person – it was boring knowing that Australia and New Zealand made the finals and for a while it was definitely just Australia dominating. I think it’s definitely more exciting now.”
Australia’s original netball superstar, former captain now selector Annie Sargeant, believes that a pivotal time for the sport is one that may dictate the future structure and decisions around Super Netball and other domestic competitions. “Maybe this World Cup will set the tone at a world level of how the sport evolves,” she says. “We saw at the Comm Games the massive impact of Suncorp Super Netball – and probably prior to it, trans-Tasman [championships], to a point.’’
Athletes from other countries now have their elite experiences elevated so regularly that the gap has been bridged, says Sargeant, and the mystique around the perennial powers has ebbed as the confidence elsewhere has flowed. “Now they’re shoulder to shoulder, stride to stride, week in, week out, so yes they challenge each other, which is great for fans, it’s great for learning about each other, it’s great in many ways, but it’s
levelled that whole mystique, so it’s really changed the way world championships and Comm Games are played now.”
Back in 1991, Sargeant had been heavily involved in building a platform for that ground-breaking event in Sydney, in which the three crucial lead-up years were spent visiting boardrooms, schmoozing sponsors and showcasing Test matches so that fans became more conditioned to seeing netball internationals as regular, visible events.
Then, on July 13, with Bob Hawke leading the applause, came the pay-off. “It was here, live, everybody talking about it,” says Sargeant of what became the water-cooler subject from which the inaugural national league sprouted. Devery, who was replaced in the last quarter by Roselee Jencke, the Victorian responsible for the matchwinning interception with a minute to play, will be in the control room 28 years later, her broadcast certainty diluted during the planning phase by unprecedented doubts over preliminary results.
“For the first time ever there are six teams that could cause an upset,” says Devery, who spent 21 years as a producer at Fox Sports, including of rugby, which she points out did not introduce a World Cup until 1987. “I think there’s four teams that can win it, and South Africa and Malawi can cause an upset that could throw a spanner in the works.
“Before, it was always like ‘oh yay, World Cup’ but you’d know it was going to be Australia and New Zealand in the final. You might get a little bit of a shake from England along the way, or one of the West Indian countries could give you a scare for the first half, but that would be about it.
“The Suncorp Super Netball competition might have made England better, it might have made Jamaica better, too. Well, that’s great, because it was going to get very boring if it was just Australia-New Zealand for the next 20 years.”
It's going to be very, very tough: Diamonds coach Lisa Alexander.
Australia vs New Zealand skirmishes are a netball tradition. The Diamonds are defending World Cup champs. The great Irene Van Dyk. New Zealand Warriors coach Stephen Kearney. Proud Tongan rep Andrew Fifita.
Jamaican Jhaniele Fowler, the world's most prolific goaler. England stunningly toppled the Diamonds to claim 2018 Comm Games gold.
Karla Pretorius, the Proteas’ current standout.
England's line-up, which features Geva Mentor and Layla Guscoth [far left] is formidable indeed.