The Netball Europe Under-17 Championships are being held in Gibraltar between 4th and 6th March. As with the senior tournament that will take place in Newcastle during May, the squads are split into two sections, with the home nations contesting the main championship and the emerging countries competing in the “challenge section”.
The latter group comprises the hosts, Malta, Switzerland… and the Republic of Ireland; and obviously I am particularly interested to see how the Irish girls perform in what will almost certainly be the biggest tournament of their young careers.
Netball is not a “traditional” sport in the Republic and for the senior squad to have made enough progress on court to achieve a world ranking of 26 without any regular funding is a notable achievement. From having met and spoken with a number of the current squad, I am so impressed not only by the incredible dedication and determination it takes to be an elite athlete, but also the amount of work involved in raising funds for training, kit, and travel to the tournaments that are absolutely essential to continuing development.
Some of these players (as well as having full-time jobs, by the way…); are also involved in coaching those youngsters who will hopefully become the international stars of the future and the upcoming games in Gibraltar will be a test not only for the teenagers out on court, but also for the development process that Netball Ireland has worked so tirelessly to implement.
To compete in an international arena at such a young age is a wonderful opportunity. I’m sure there will be some nerves, but sometimes that can bring out the best in an athlete. What is for certain is that the girls will learn something about themselves as people as well as netballers; and the coaches will be able to reflect on individual and collective progress within the squad, as well as also directly comparing Ireland’s performances against other developing nations.
What is just as important however is that the girls make the most of the experience—and enjoy it. Clearly there is a serious side to sport (the higher the level the greater the intensity); but I can’t stress enough that sport is also supposed to be fun.
So in wishing the very best of luck to these twelve young Irish girls who will be representing their country over the weekend, I also hope that win, lose or draw, you have a fantastic time and an experience you will remember for many years to come….
I understand that the games will be streamed live via Netball Europe’s YouTube channel; and I’m also reliably informed this is the link:
Details of the full fixture schedule can be found on the Netball Europe website, but if you want to tune in and watch the Ireland squad in action, they play Gibraltar at 10am on Friday 4th March, Switzerland at 12pm on 5th, and finally Malta at the relatively unearthly hour of 9:30am on Sunday morning.
Last night I paid my first visit to the new Middlesbrough Sports Village to complete my latest “Time to Change” challenge—the fifty-first since the start of 2014… how long ago does that seem?!
Despite still being in some discomfort from my badminton lesson at the hands of England international Rhys Walker nearly three weeks ago (muscles don’t heal all that quickly at my age… hang on… muscles?!!!), I was going to put the old body through its paces one more—or perhaps that should read “one last”—time, with the badminton court now being replaced by one of the netball variety.
The venue will be hosting Grangetown Netball Club’s home fixtures in National Premier League 2, which gets underway this Sunday, and I have to say the facilities look superb. When I arrived, the girls were just about to start a full practice match, and I settled down to watch… and hopefully learn.
As many of you know, I started following netball through watching my younger daughter, who played club and county age group netball during her mid-teens. She lives (and plays) in Edinburgh now, but I have been really fortunate that Grangetown have welcomed me into their club, and allowed me to write a few reports, interviews and articles on behalf of their Prem squad.
It is a fantastic, friendly club, which offers opportunities for players of all ages and abilities. The Prem squad comprises some of the finest local netballers, and will be further strengthened by a number of current internationals during the season. The standard is extremely high—as you would expect from a club effectively ranked in the top fifteen in the country—and the club lacks nothing in belief and ambition, both on and off the court.
Their strong community focus was perhaps highlighted by a willingness to allow me to spend ten minutes on court, despite the seriousness of the preparations that had preceded my somewhat incongruous appearance alongside club captain Vicky Rees at the heart of the defence…
Last year, I had a go at shooting, but found that the ball was too big and the net way too small (and too high up). Clearly all that has changed during the intervening twelve months because shots were finding the target with almost ridiculous regularity, mainly courtesy of young Tasha Grylls, who was scoring pretty much at will from pretty much anywhere inside the shooting circle…
At least I had the decency to make the game look difficult!
Within the opening minute I managed to collide with the post. In my defence I was trying to keep track of my shooter… I failed. It hurt.
It was great to witness at first hand the pace at which the game is played, the quality of movement, awareness, and the athleticism of everyone on court—with one elderly portly exception. I did wear Grangetown colours in an attempt to look the part, and even managed to make a couple of interceptions (more by luck than judgement I hasten to add); but if I was to summarise my “performance” in one word, it would be “clumsy”—although one other adjective beginning with “c” was under serious consideration.
The final whistle not only brought down the curtain on my netball “career” (amid huge sighs of relief from team mates and opponents alike); but on participation in sport in general. It’s now almost a decade since I was told that I’d need hip replacement surgery within “two to fifteen years” depending on how much sport I chose to play. Over the past few months I’ve bowled at a test cricketer, sparred with an unbeaten pro boxer, played badminton against an England international and had a go at netball… I think I should probably quit while I’m at least marginally ahead—but I do want to say a massive thank you to Head Coach Gel Williams and all the girls at the club, not just for last night, but also for making me feel part of the “Grangetown family”…
Finally, at the risk of sounding like a stuck record, I undertook this challenge (as well as the preceding fifty) to raise awareness of mental health issues: the fact that it is fine to talk… and the fact that help is there if you can find the strength to ask for it. As far as challenging the stigma of mental health is concerned, it’s is very much “Time to Change”—but from the point of view of me and netball… it’s definitely “Time to Retire”!