Ten- team bo­nanza kicks off a huge year for net­ball

Net­ball’s move into the main­stream is confi rmed by the fl air and fer­vour on show for a big crowd as a huge year be­gins, writes Nick Ames

The Observer - Sport - - Front Page -

When Ser­ena Guthrie left Team Bath in 2015, re­lo­cat­ing to the net­ball strongholds of New Zealand and Aus­tralia for the peak years of her ca­reer, it was diffi cult to en­ter­tain se­ri­ous thoughts that Eng­land could de­ci­sively shift the sport’s dial. The fl ow of tal­ent was go­ing one way , the na­tional team was con­sis­tently a step be­hind the an­tipodeans and the do­mes­tic game’s growth was not rapid enough to pro­vide a cred­i­ble plat­form for play­ers at the very top level.

On the day she turned 29, Guthrie re­turned to a stage that could hardly have ap­peared more dif­fer­ent. These days English net­ball is con­fi­dent, vi­brant, com­fort­able in its own skin . Guthrie, the infl uen­tial cen­tre in the Com­mon­wealth Games- win­ning na­tional team, was back in her old team’s colours for the 2019 Net­ball Su­per­league opener and the sense of mo­men­tum was un­mis­tak­able.

“Ten years ago this just wasn’t hap­pen­ing,” she said of a healthy 5,351 crowd at Arena Birm­ing­ham, many of whom stayed for all five games of an in­ten­sive “Su­per 10” match­day de­signed to put all the do­mes­tic big hit­ters in the lime­light.

“It’s a re­ally cool time to be a net­baller in this coun­try. I want what­ever I ex­pe­ri­enced [ in Aus­tralia] to hap­pen in Eng­land. If I can help to be a part of that, then amaz­ing.”

Eng­land Net­ball’s un­offi cial tar­get is for the Su­per­league to be able to com­pete with the world’s big­gest by 2022. That Guthrie is back to help out con­sti­tutes a sig­nifi cant feather in the cap and the re­turn of the Eng­land cap­tain, Ama Ag­beze, who is re­cov­er­ing from knee surgery and sat out of Lon­don Pulse’s thrilling last­gasp de­feat to Sev­ern Stars yester day af­ter­noon, adds fur­ther weight to a prod­uct whose au­di­ence is wi­den­ing .

“When you walk into an event like this, there’s a dif­fer­ent feel­ing around the sport,” said Joanne Adams, the chief ex­ec­u­tive of Eng­land Net­ball . “I feel in­cred­i­bly proud.

“Eng­land’s suc­cess has given net­ball play­ers pride in their sport. Pre­vi­ously, they didn’t ex­actly hide the fact they were net­ballers but they didn’t openly talk about it. Now the

One slick turn and re­lease caused a sup­porter to ex­claim:

‘ She’s ridicu­lous’

per­cep­tion has changed and peo­ple know this is a fan­tas­tic women’s sport.”

The crowd’s de­mo­graphic was sub­tly dif­fer­ent from the norm. Pre­vi­ously, matches would be at­tended by a pre­dom­i­nantly young, fe­male base. Here, there were plenty of older faces – an im­pres­sion per­haps con­firmed when the Tina Turner trib­ute act com­mis­sioned to en­ter­tain be­tween matches drew far wilder ap­plause than sim­i­lar im­pres­sions of Ari­ana Grande and Kylie Minogue – and the male rep­re­sen­ta­tion was no­table, too. “There are gen­eral sports fans here as well as just net­ball fans,” Adams said, and those on a learn­ing curve have joined at the right time.

They saw Guthrie put on a mini-mas­ter­class in Team Bath’s 58- 41 win over the Cardiff- based side Celtic Dragons, who fin­ished bot­tom of the league last sea­son. She drew gasps with one re­verse pass from next to her own semi- cir­cle, an­other slick turn and re­lease caus­ing a sup­porter to ex­claim: “She’s ridicu­lous.”

In a sport where space is at a premium, and the real art comes in mus­ter­ing the ex­tra half- sec­ond to find some, it was the kind of elite per­pet­ual- mo­tion per­for­mance that jus­ti­fied the de­ci­sion to set ticket prices at a typ­i­cal £ 35.

Adams and her col­leagues did not want to of­fer this event for peanuts. “For net­ball to ac­tu­ally hold com­mer­cial value it has to have a cred­i­bil­ity,” she says. “Some sports of­fer tick­ets for a fi ver – we don’t want

to take ad­van­tage of any­body but this can’t be a give­away sport.”

The in­ten­sity and tempo, for any­body who has not at­tended a live game , are eye­catch­ing . “I think peo­ple are start­ing to un­der­stand just how fierce and fast this sport is, and just how hard we ath­letes work out there‚“said Natalie Pana­garry, a re­cent callup to the Eng­land squad whose Lough­bor­ough Light­ning side were thrashed 72- 42 by the cham­pi­ons, Wasps, in the sec­ond game. “It’s re­ally nice that peo­ple are recog­nis­ing it, but we’ve al­ways been here .”

The task now, in a year that will bring a World Cup to Eng­land in July and a keenly awaited Quad Se­ries against Aus­tralia, New Zealand and South Africa next week­end, is to make use of the spring­board. The strength of the league and of the na­tional team are, to an ex­tent, sym­bi­otic: if Eng­land are per­form­ing well, the lo­cal game will at­tract more at­ten­tion and the tal­ent pool is only likely to in­crease, par­tic­u­larly with an es­ti­mated 1.4 mil­lion women play­ing net­ball ev­ery week. “If young girls don’t get to see their role mod­els play live then it’s much harder to get them to play the sport,” Adams said.

Their at­ten­tion was held yes­ter­day , and not only by Guthrie. Not ev­ery­thing was note per­fect – a re­quest for fans to come in fancy dress as “fe­male icons” was al­most en­tirely ig­nored and per­haps net­ball’s sta­tus these days mer­its a keener fo­cus on sport­ing en­ter­tain­ment – but Bri­tish net­ball’s jour­ney into un­charted ter­ri­tory as pop­u­lar spec­ta­tor sport is in its early stages.

“I’m look­ing for­ward to rid­ing the wave, rid­ing the hype,” Guthrie said.

On this ev­i­dence she has no short­age of peo­ple to take with her.

Ser­ena Guthrie makes her home­com­ing in the fa­mil­iar colours of Team Bath af­ter three years play­ing in New Zealand and Aus­tralia

Brie Gri­er­son ( above right) fends off an op­po­nent dur­ing her Lon­don Pulse side’s knife- edge 51- 49 win over Sev­ern Stars

The reign­ing cham­pi­ons Wasps ( right) swat aside Lough­bor­ough Light­ning 72- 42

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