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A new national obsession: Netball fever spreads ahead of World Cup

By Heather Large | News | Published:

It’s fast becoming one of the nation’s most popular sports with more than 1.4 million women and girls taking to the court every season.

Around 800 players compete in the Dudley Netball League

Netball fever has continued to spread since the England team made history last year by winning their first Commonwealth gold after beating reining champions Australia on their home soil.

According to the sport’s national governing body, the victory at the Gold Coast inspired more than 130,700 women to take up the game.

It’s also led to increased television coverage with both the BBC and Sky planning to broadcast matches from this year’s Netball World Cup, which begins at Liverpool Arena on Friday.

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Closer to home, netball fever also continues to spread across the Midlands.

About 800 players participate in the Dudley Netball League, just one of dozens of leagues running each year around the region.

Clubs come from across the Black Country and Birmingham take part in the league, which has been running for more than 40 years.

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Seventy-two teams compete in nine divisions during the season which runs from the start of April to the middle of July with matches taking place three nights a week at George Salter Academy in West Bromwich.

Among those who compete in the league is Linden Netball Club, which is based in Nechels, Birmingham, and is coached by Colette Thomson, who is also the current assistant coach for the England.

She believes last year’s Commonwealth gold medal, which the team won in dramatic style, provided a “massive” boost for the sport at all levels.

Tracey Neville (centre) and the England netball team celebrate taking gold, at the 2018 Commonwealth Games in the Gold Coast

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“It’s grown phenomenally and is now getting so much exposure that it’s never really had before,” says Colette, who was awarded an MBE for her services to netball in 2014.

“The players can’t believe all the things that have happened since like being in Elle magazine and getting sponsorship from Nike.

“We are now focussed on the World Cup because no one is going to remember what happened last year if we don’t medal at the World Cup.”

This summer has seen the England women’s football team experience an unprecedented level of support for their World Cup campaign in France.

But that hasn’t led to any kind of watering down of enthusiasm for the growing interest in netball.

Dudley Netball League matches take place three nights a week during the summer season

The football team is coached by Phil Neville, and his sister Tracey Neville will once again take charge of the country’s netball side.

By her side throughout will be Colette, who believes netball is one of the “ultimate team games”, fostering a shared sense of achievement.

“In netball, because of the player restrictions, you really do need all seven players as no one player can do all of the jobs,” she continues.

“It’s also very social. If you’re going to the gym on your own, it’s very easy to say that you can’t be bothered but if you’re in a netball team who are relying on you to play then you have a responsibility to them.

“There is a great camaraderie,which I don’t think exists in other sports and for some women it’s also a chance to leave the kids at home and have a bit of ‘me time’.”

Not only does netball bring fitness and health benefits, but it also provides fun, laughter and friendship, say players.

Steph Brooks, aged 32, who lives in Wolverhampton and is a PE teacher at Shireland Collegiate Academy in Smethwick currently plays for Linden.

“I’ve been playing since I was 12 and I’ve always enjoyed playing because of the competitiveness, the exercise and social side of it.

“It’s amazing to have the chance to train with Colette and have her watching our games especially after she was at the Commonwealth Games with England,” says Steph, who plays as goal attack or goal shooter.

Steph Brooks from Wolverhampton has been playing since she was 12

Helping to boost national participation in the sport is England Netball’s successful Back to Netball scheme.

It provides women of all ages with a gentle re-introduction to the sport and more than 100,000 have been involved in the programme since it began in 2008.

Among those who have been lured back to the court is retail buyer Kim Haywood from Halesowen, who plays for Libra Lea Netball Club which trains at Ellowes Hall Sports College in Lower Gornal.

“I used to play at school but didn’t play again until four years ago when I did Back to Netball.

“I’m not really interested in going to the gym so I like the social side of netball. I enjoy playing and turning up each week to play with the team. They are amazing and everyone really enjoys playing together,” says the 36-year-old who plays centre, wing attack or wing defence.

Dudley Netball League chairwoman Sally-Ann Chambers has been involved in the sport for more than 20 years and coaches Midrange Netball Club, based at George Salter Academy.

She believes the sport offers many benefits such as helping to keep players fit and providing a way of unwinding away from the stresses of daily life.

“It’s a sport you can play at a young age and when you are older as don’t have to have a certain level of fitness, you can play in a team that matches your fitness and ability. We’ve got players of all ages right up to those in their 60s who still enjoy playing.

“For the younger girls it can help with any anxiety they are feeling or issues they are having at school like bullying. They can come to netball and forget about everything else that’s happening in their life.

“As you get older it becomes about making and having time for yourself away from work and home. We’ve got women who have come back to netball after having babies because it’s something just for them,” says Sally-Ann.

The league has seen an increase in participation especially since the Commonwealth Games.

“We’ve seen a big increase in the numbers coming back to netball and the number of teams that are playing at all levels,” Sally-Ann continues.

“It’s great to see netball receive so much positive attention thanks to the England team and hopefully the World Cup will have the same affect as people will be able to watch games on TV.

“Netball used to be called a ‘sissy’ sport but now people are having to look at netball in a different way.”

She runs the league with a 15-strong committee including many long-standing members with upwards of 30 years’ experience who are working together to help develop the sport.

Kim Haywood from Halesowen took part in the Back to Netball programme

“We’ve all got a lot out of netball over the years by playing and making friends so this is our chance to give something back and help the next generations enjoy it too,” says Sally.

Netball’s popularity has also inspired the formation of new leagues including a mixed workplace league in Telford, organised by Netball England.

More than 120 people have signed up including many who are playing the sport for the first time.

Workplaces from around the county have submitted teams including Coalbrookdale School, the Haygate Hawks from Haygate Veterinary Practice, The Kites from Lawley Village Academy, Peaky Guiders made up of staff from Guide Dogs UK, Redhill of Redhill Primary Academy and Shifnal 7 of FH Property Ltd.

A new league was also set up in Oswestry earlier this year by Leagues4you which also runs a successful Netball Fun League in Shrewsbury.

League coordinator Lucie Hughes said: “We set up a Netball League in Oswestry in March - the spring season started off with nine teams which is a great response for a new league in a new area. The spring season is finishing on July 16 and I have already had two new teams enquire to start for the summer season. I am hoping the summer season will have 11 teams. With seven players per team this is an amazing 77 ladies playing netball every week.”

Also boosting participation around the region is walking netball, an adaptation of the original game in which players cannot run or jump launched in recent years to encourage those who had hung up their netball trainers many years ago back into the sport.

England Netball says that between April 2018 and March 2019, more than 2,000 women in the Black Country, Staffordshire, and Shropshire took part in Back to Netball sessions while 650 women joined Walking Netball sessions.

Not only does netball bring fitness and health benefits, but it also provides fun, laughter and friendship

England Netball chief executive Joanna Adams said: “Winning gold at the Commonwealth Games has brought netball to the attention of the masses and encouraged many people to get involved with the sport. That moment gripped the nation, changed perceptions of netball and inspired thousands of people to hit a netball court near them.

“It is fantastic to see that more women than ever before are playing netball each week because we know it can make such a positive difference to people’s lives.

“The Commonwealth Games result had a huge impact on the country, even though it took place all the way out at the Gold Coast, so I can’t wait to see what effect the Vitality Netball World Cup will have since it’s on home soil.”

Now all eyes will be on England as they take on Uganda in their opening game at 7pm on Friday.

There are 16 teams bidding to reach the final and lift the trophy on July 21.

The tournament starts with the sides competing in four round-robin groups and England, who are currently third in the International Netball Federation world rankings, are in Group D alongside Scotland, Uganda and Samoa.

England, also known as the Vitality Roses, are riding high after last summer’s success which saw players secure a multi-year partnership deal with Nike.

Among the players named in the squad is Helen Housby – who scored the winning goal as England beat Australia last April.

But, sadly, Heath Hayes netball star Beth Cobden was ruled out of the tournament after suffering a major knee injury while playing for the Adelaide Thunderbirds.

Colette Thomson, assistant coach for England, with the Linden team

World Cup sponsor Vitality, has launched #WeAreRising, a new campaign which will champion and celebrate the World Cup, as well as inspire more people to participate in the sport with a pledge to fund grassroots coaches.

It has announced that for every 100 goals scored during the Vitality Netball World Cup, it will provide funding for one person to obtain a UKCC Level 1 Assistant Qualification Coaching Certificate through England Netball.

Tracey Neville has called on the nation to get behind the Roses during the 10-day tournament.

“This is a huge summer for the Vitality Roses as we will be facing the world’s best teams on home soil,” she says.

“We need the support of the nation behind us and hope that the Vitality Netball World Cup inspires more people to watch, get involved, coach and play netball.”

Anyone interested in finding out more about playing netball or umpiring in Dudley can go to www.dudleynetball.co.uk

Heather Large

By Heather Large
Special projects reporter - @HeatherL_star

Senior reporter and part of the Express & Star special projects team specialising in education and human interest features.

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