England netball suffered defeat once more to a strong New Zealand side this week, losing 57-46 in the Quad series down under. Despite a strong start that suggesting a possible upset, they fell away and the tournament has provided little surprise in its results.
There is a simple and predictable format: England beat South Africa, New Zealand and Australia beat England and compete with each other for the top spot. This is a depressingly familiar story, and although none can be blamed for the gaps in quality the sport would benefit from a shake-up. So how do we achieve this?
The right infrastructure is certainly in place. Despite not featuring at this summers London Olympics netball remains one of the largest participation sports in England. The inspiration for young athletes could generate a new era of achievement of a sport, and a government plan involves increased funding. Netball also benefits from its massive volunteer network and the rising popularity of its Netball Superleague. The comparative leagues of New Zealand and Australia are admittedly further ahead but the right attitude and encouragement could see a strong catch up.
The players are there, the audience is there, so why no media coverage? With current news topics netball would need some form or doping or racism scandal to get anywhere near a back page.
Another issue raised over recent years and post Olympics is about the role of women’s sport and competing with male equivalents. Netball being an (almost) all female sport should provide that edge and there are already large companies investing in sponsorship, with Superleague games now televised on Sky.
So how to beat the top two? Well firstly we already have. In last years Fastnet championships on home soil England beat both the top ranked sides to collect the title. This was hoped to set a standard that could be replicated in future but has yet to happen consistently in the traditional format tournaments. Its important to remember however that any victory over ANZ sides is a remarkable achievement and their close efforts this week should be applauded, the question more about leveling the playing field for the good of the game and its audience.
England face Australia on Sunday following a large defeat to them last week. Closing that gap would be the first step on an ambitious long term target, though it will do little to affect world rankings short term. With England Netball there are many positive signs for the future, but they will need to use the ‘Olympic’ momentum to begin an exciting new era for netball.