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.

Inside Sport - - Contents - BY LINDA PEARCE

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.”

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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. … †‡ˆ‰ 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.

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