Penny Hopkins looks into the development of international competition in the sport which established its dominance in Commonwealth countries
So how do countries compete at a sport that has no standardised rules, has differing team numbers and can’t even decide what it should call itself?
We’ve already seen that although the spread of netball was rapid and wide, everyone had their own ideas as to how the game should be played. And yet, it was surely only a matter of time before national teams would be developed and they would need to find opponents.
‘Never has such publicity been given to the game… we are shadowed by press and photographers,’
And so it was that the first international game of netball was played. Of course it was still called Women’s Basketball, but it took place when New Zealand toured Australia in 1938. In typically eclectic fashion, the teams played with seven players, even though the New Zealanders were used to playing with nine and they adopted some of the rules from England.
The tourists played local and state teams and had one test against the Australian national side. Unsurprisingly they lost 40-11.
England’s first internationals came against Scotland and Wales in May 1949 at Wembley. Bizarrely the score was the same in both; 25-3 to England. Australia first toured England in 1956. ‘Never has such publicity been given to the game… we are shadowed by press and photographers,’ said Lorna McConchie, coach of the Australian touring team.
In the 1930’s, South Africa first toured overseas in New Zealand.
It was a marathon experience for all involved. The Australians were away from home for six months, playing 67 matches in total and losing only three. The England team was beaten for the first time – a feat made more incredible when you remember they were playing to English rules.
When discovering the history behind any sport, the modern audience tends to boggle at just what participants had to do to represent their country. In this case, the Australian squad had to pay £350 (pounds sterling) each towards costs for the privilege. They went through a three and a half week voyage to reach England – time well used coming to terms with the different rules under which they would be playing.
It is safe to say that the tourists attracted attention throughout. In the test match against England at Wembley stadium, a crowd of 7.000 saw the Aussies beat the hosts 14-11.
The tour was a watershed moment in the sport as it was after this that it was decided that the rules really should be standardised. In 1960, representatives from the main netball-playing countries, including England, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Sri Lanka and West Indies met to agree the rules. As a result an international governing body, the International Federation of Women’s Basketball and Netball (now the International Netball Federation (INF) was born. However, it was still another ten years before the Australasian countries came to call the game “netball.”
Before we discuss the growth of international tournaments, it would be remiss not to mention the unique problems associated with touring South Africa. In the 1930’s, South Africa first toured overseas in New Zealand. They also played the Silver Ferns at home. In all series they stipulated that there should be no Maori players included and the New Zealand government complied.
Race wasn’t an issue when the England team toured South Africa in 1956 – there were no black players. England won all three tests, as they did when South Africa came to England in 1959. By 1966 the quality of South African netball had improved significantly, and this time, when a squad of schoolgirls toured England, they won every one of their 61 matches.
But the New Zealand situation was still at thorny one. Before the 1967 tour, South African Prime Minister John Vorster held discussions with the New Zealand government regarding the makeup of the home side. He was actually in favour of reform in sport, wanting mixed race teams to compete against South Africa. However, Albert Herzog, who was at that time Minister of Health, spoke vehemently against such a move at the Transvaal National Party Congress. He particularly referenced the “Maori problem” in all New Zealand teams and was quoted as saying: “They will sit at the table with our young men and girls, and dance with our girls.”
Vorster won out and mixed race teams were allowed to compete in South Africa and against South African teams in their own countries, but there still would be no mixed South African teams.
In 1969, Netball South Africa was expelled from the INF and excluded from the 1970 Netball World Championships. South Africa’s only response was to all allow mixed race teams to tour, but only to compete against segregated white and non-white teams.
That same year, the All England Netball Association withdrew its invitation to a South African touring team, but in 1973, after they indicated they had no objections to England fielding a mixed race squad, England toured South Africa and incurred the wrath of many of their fellow netballing countries. In particularly in the West Indies where Jamaica banned any England player who took part in the tour from playing in their country.
In 1974, the New Zealand government turned down a request from the New Zealand Netball Association to let South Africa play in a 1975 international tournament. It also told the Association that it would not allow the South Africans to tour New Zealand. It maintained this position in answer to a similar request in 1976.
Post-apartheid South Africa was welcomed back into the fold and its first overseas tour was to New Zealand in 1994 after over 20 years in the wilderness followed by its first World Championship in 1995.
It is now relatively commonplace for netballing nations to meet home and away, but more importantly, the standardisation of the rules paved the way for global and continental competitions.
In 1963, the first World Netball Championship was played in Eastbourne, England. The Aussie Diamonds have dominated this tournament winning 10 of the 14 titles. The New Zealand Silver Ferns won in 1967, 1987 and 2003. The 1979 event, held in Trinidad and Tobago, was played to a round-robin format which saw New Zealand, Australia and Trinidad and Tobago share the title. In 2015, the competition’s name was changed to become the Netball World Cup. Not surprisingly, Australia was crowned the inaugural champion. The next World Cup will be held in 2019 in Liverpool, England.
Surprisingly, netball only made its first appearance at the Commonwealth Games in 1998 after being a demonstration sport in Auckland in 1990. Australia won the first two golds in Kuala Lumpur, Manchester and New Zealand and then in Melbourne and Delhi. Australia came roaring back in 2014 in Glasgow, beating their arch-rivals New Zealand in the final by 58-40. Jamaica and England seem to be constant bridesmaids in this competition and will be looking to break the Australasian stranglehold when the event is held on Australia’s Gold Coast in 2018.
By contrast, netball has never even been a demonstration sport at the Olympic Games. It became an Olympic recognised sport in 1995, after a mere 20 years of lobbying which means in theory it could be included in future games. But history has shown that recognition for women’s sport moves slowly. And argument behind its non-inclusion is that it would solely be played by women and would, therefore, be of limited interest. Of course, the less cynical amongst us should also point out that there a maximum number of 28 sports can take place at any Olympic Games and something else would have to make way.
Netball did make one appearance at the World Games in 1985 in London. The World Games is held every four years and is for sports that are not included in the Olympic Games. Curiously, after this one appearance it hasn’t been seen since.
Asian Netball Championship
More recently, the second-tier netballing nations have formed their own tournaments and competitions. The first Asian Netball Championship took place in 1985 in Kuala Lumpur and five teams took part. The winners was Malaysia and Sri Lanka the runners-up. While Sri Lanka has won the title four times the current holders are Singapore, having won in 2014 as the host nation. Ten teams now regularly compete and the 2016 Championships were held in Bangkok from July 31 – August 7th.
The Nations Cup is an annual tournament organised by Netball Singapore. Its competitor numbers vary between four and six teams and have included Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales and Republic of Ireland, Botswana, Uganda, Tanzania and Namibia, Singapore, Malaysia, Chinese Taipei, Papa New Guinea, Sri Lanka, Fiji and Samoa, Canada and United States, India and Trinidad and Tobago. Later this year, Northern Ireland will travel to Singapore to defend its title later.
Netball also appears in several small multi-sport events such as the Pacific Games, All (or Pan)-Africa Games and the World Masters Games. The Pacific Games is a four-yearly event for countries located in the Pacific, the next edition of which takes place in 2017 in Vanuatu.
The All-Africa Games also takes place every four years and the next venue is Lusaka, Zambia in 2019.
The World Masters Games was established in 1985 on a four year rotation with the 2017 edition scheduled for Auckland. The event is aimed at older athletes and most sports require competitors to be over 35, although some accept participants as young as 25.
Even though to some the fact that netball is not an Olympic sport is a barrier to its progress, it certainly seems that netballing nations will take the opportunity to play tournament netball wherever they can.
In 2008, so many nations were playing regularly that the INF instituted its World Rankings system. The higher ranking teams obviously compete with each other more often, but it is seen as a relatively accurate measure of how the game is developing all around the world.
As the game develops and re-invents itself further we are likely to see new competitions. New forms of the game such as FastNet or as it is now called Fast5 and Walking Netball, are growing at such a rate that teams will need to find others to compete against.
In the fourth and final part of this history, we’ll be examining the present state and future prospects of the sport as it continues to evolve.