Nancy Gillen

As much as I loved physical education (PE) during my time at school, much of it was spent frustrated at having to play netball nearly every week.

While the boys played rugby or football, I was left confounded by this sport which forbade participants from running while in possession of the ball. As I reached the latter stages of school, teachers allowed us to choose how we spent our two hours a week of PE. At this point I donned my football boots and went to join the boys, leaving the netball court far behind.

Regardless of that last-minute defection, I spent many hours of my childhood playing netball, whether I wanted to or not. It is the same for nearly all of my female contemporaries who grew up in England.

This heavy focus on netball is likely to stem from the fact that the sport has English origins. It was created as a women’s version of basketball towards the end of the 19th century, first played at Madame Österberg's Physical Training College in Hampstead in 1895.

The restriction of physical movement and no contact nature of the sport meant that, while unruly children like me struggled with the rules more than 100 years later, women at the time could participate in physical activity without appearing unladylike.  

It is interesting then, given the history and subsequent focus on netball in English schools, that the country is yet to win an edition of the Netball World Cup. England’s best finish has been second place in 1975, although they have managed third in the past two tournaments.

The 15th edition of the competition has just begun in Liverpool and the hosts are one of the favourites to lift the trophy. An insurmountable obstacle lies between victory, however. Australia.

The Diamonds have won 11 of the 14 Netball World Cups, an almost unprecedented degree of domination in the international sporting arena.

As my experience shows, England boasts high numbers of participation among women in netball, as do the majority of Commonwealth countries. So why have Australia been so superior throughout the years?

This question took me to the website of Netball Australia, where I found my answer under the heading “About Us”.

“While other codes are just waking up to the power of female sport, Australian netball has been leading the charge for the better part of a century,” the website reads.

“Female empowerment is in our DNA.”

Australia won the inaugural Netball World Cup in 1963, captained by Joyce Brown, coach of the 1991 World Cup-winning Australian side ©England Netball
Australia won the inaugural Netball World Cup in 1963, captained by Joyce Brown, coach of the 1991 World Cup-winning Australian side ©England Netball

While playing heavily on the power of rhetoric, this statement does ring true. Australia has always been the key player in driving netball forward, which in turn means that on the court they are often superior.

Known as women’s basketball in Australia until 1970, the All Australia Women’s Basketball Association (AANA) was formed in 1927, the third national netball association to be created behind the New Zealand Basketball Association in 1924 and All England Netball Association in 1926.

Australia then featured in the first international netball match in 1938. They played New Zealand in Melbourne, achieving a resounding 44-11 victory.

In 1956, the Australian side embarked on an unprecedented 57-game tour around England, playing the hosts at Wembley Stadium in front of around 7,000 spectators. Australia narrowly won 14-11, despite having to play by English rules rather than their own. In total, they were triumphant in 54 of the 57 fixtures. The captain of that Australian side, Joyce Brown, went on to coach her country to victory at the 1991 Netball World Cup.

Bolstered by the wealth of international experience already under their belts, Australia went on the win the inaugural Netball World Cup in 1963, travelling back to England to compete in the town of Eastbourne.

Throughout the 60s, 70s and 80s, netball began to professionalise in Australia, with the AANA deciding in 1978 to pursue a strategy of commercialisation, sponsorship and expansion. This saw the organisation hire salaried staff for the first time rather than rely on volunteers.

In 1993, the AANA became Netball Australia, and four years later, the country’s first elite netball league was launched. This happened a year before New Zealand did the same in 1998 and eight years before England did so in 2005.

Mascots were created for each of the teams involved and uniforms were revamped in order to improve the image of the league. This was successful, with Commonwealth Bank becoming the naming rights sponsor.

During the 10-year history of the Commonwealth Bank Trophy, attendance figures often reached the thousands and in 2005, the competition began to be televised on Australian Broadcasting Corporation's ABC2 channel.

Next came the ANZ Championship in 2008. Netball Australia and Netball New Zealand combined to create a joint semi-professional league in a bid to increase media coverage and player salaries.  This lasted until 2016, at which point Netball Australia looked to use it as springboard to launch their own professional league, Super Netball.

England's last-gasp victory in the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games netball final was attributed to the inclusion of English players in the Australian domestic league ©Getty Images
England's last-gasp victory in the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games netball final was attributed to the inclusion of English players in the Australian domestic league ©Getty Images

Starting in 2017, Super Netball is now the trailblazing league in netball, attracting the world’s best talent to its eight teams. An average player salary of AUD$67,000 (£37,492/$47,041/€41,674), as reported by The News Daily, gives stars the best netball wages on offer.

In fact, when England stunned Australia to win gold at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games last year, the result was put down to the inclusion of English players in Super Netball.

“I can't say it any other way, I'm the national coach and this (English players in Super Netball) has clearly assisted them to win this gold medal," said Australian head coach Lisa Alexander at the time, as reported by ABC.

"That's our high-performance system working for another country."

These strong words were probably more of a product of Australia’s heartbreaking defeat in front of their home crowd, but they still show the extent to which the Australian domestic league is considered to be the best in the world.

It is clear, then, that Australia have always been one step ahead in developing netball as a sport.

Now they have paved the way to what is set to be the most competitive Netball World Cup yet.

Countries such as England and New Zealand have fought to improve the standards of their own domestic leagues in order to keep up with the Australians. Meanwhile, Pacific teams such as Samoa and Fiji have been benefitting from the Australia Pacific Sports Linkages Programme, participating in high-performance training camps organised by Netball Australia. 

Much of the quality of netball on display in Liverpool can be attributed to Australia and their trailblazing role in the history of the sport, then.

At the time of writing, the Diamonds have recorded two emphatic World Cup victories against Northern Ireland and Zimbabwe. Whether they can continue to dominate on the world stage is yet to be seen, however, especially with other countries now profiting from their resources and expertise.

Having recovered from my experience of netball at school, I am looking forward to seeing how the tournament unfolds.