Less than 50 days now until the Netball World Cup and the squad announcements have been coming thick and fast. I’ve read thoughts and opinions from plenty of people who have so much experience and knowledge of the sport; this blog therefore is by way of complete contrast…
Given what transpired in last year’s Commonwealth Games and January’s Quad series, it’s reasonable to suggest that the 15th World Cup is the most open in the tournament’s history.
If you believe in tradition”, there is only one likely final, with one almost certain winner; as Australia have appeared in the last seven finals, winning on six occasions. The “blip” came in 2003, when New Zealand lifted the trophy, but the Silver Ferns have finished runners-up no less than five times since losing out by a single point to the Diamonds in 1991.
Interestingly, there have been three single-goal victories (all by Australia) in the seven tournaments since a one-off game replaced a round-robin to determine the champions. One game was decided by two goals, another by three, so whatever happens, history suggests that the final could be a proverbial nail-biter.
The only side apart from Australia and New Zealand to have reached a final in the past 30 years is … actually it’s South Africa back in 1995. The Proteas’ 59-57 defeat of New Zealand in the first group stage ensured the Silver Ferns and Australian Diamonds were paired in the same second group and could not possibly contest the final.
The decisive goals in a thrilling finish (I’ve seen the video) came from Irene van Dyk (occasionally spelt van Dyck), a 6’4” shooter who would later become a New Zealand international. She retired in 2014 with 217 caps to her name and an international career shooting average of a remarkable 90%.
But I digress…
The fact remains that whether on past or recent form, or simply based on the quality of players at their respective disposal, New Zealand and Australia simply cannot be discounted – so what about England?
What the Roses achieved in the 2018 Commonwealth Games was pure theatre– the winning goal was one of the greatest and most emotive moments in any sport that I’ve ever seen. The victorious squad have given English netball such a huge profile; they are outstanding athletes, wonderful role models and definite contenders for the World Cup.
Tracey Neville’s squad is strong and looks well-balanced. The selection of Natalie Panagarry meant that (presumably) Iona Darroch missed out, which was a shame for Severn Stars’ young mid-courter, but based on the former’s versatility in attack and defence, Nat was probably the wise choice. My only change would have been to include Ama Agbeze ahead of an admittedly amazing talent in Fran Williams.
Whatever pressure the players may have experienced in Australia, it will be significantly greater when the girls take to the court in Liverpool. I accept that Ama may currently not be fully fit and her time at London Pulse hasn’t gone as well as she would have hoped; but we’re still seven weeks away from the start of competition and what Ama would bring to the squad surely extends way beyond what could have been a crucial contribution on court. The leaking of her omission from the squad was at best “unfortunate” (although “disgraceful” might be a more appropriate word); but Ama faced the cameras and spoke with all the dignity and passion that you’d expect from one of the country’s finest athletes and ambassadors…
Serena Guthrie has subsequently been named Roses captain. She is a strong character and I can imagine her being a powerful motivator. Every team will struggle at some point during a long and intense competition, and with plenty of experience around her, I suspect that Serena will be a positive source of inspiration in those difficult moments.
There’s no obvious reason to suggest the players won’t cope with the unprecedented (in netball terms) level of expectation, and they clearly have the class and ability to become world champions … but (and it’s a controversial but) I just don’t think this will be England’s year.
Before I expand on why, I will just say that Jamaica always have the ability to pull off a major surprise. To a certain extent they are the unknown quantity as they did not participate in the Quad Series, and they too have an impressive squad (including Jodi-Ann Ward who formed such a brilliant partnership with Sam Cook for Severn Stars in Super League). I sense that whilst they can turn over the best in the world on their day, the Sunshine Girls also tend to fine one team too good in the longer format…
Which brings me to South Africa. They too have an exceptional squad – I am a huge admirer of the outstanding Karla Pretorius, but the 12 selected by Norma Plummer is full of high-quality athletes, including Bongi Msomi, Maryka Holtzhausen (genuinely one of the nicest people you could wish to meet) and Shadine van der Merwe, who have all been plying their trade in Super League since the Quad Series.
In that series, South Africa pulled off what, at the time, was considered a shock win over England; they would have beaten New Zealand too, had netball’s equivalent of Alex Ferguson not been in charge of timekeeping. The Proteas clearly had a plan to play with an intensity and physicality to stifle the Roses attacking flair – and it worked. You could argue South Africa showed their hand too early, as Tracey Neville will surely have worked on a way to overcome similar tactics; but what if Norma Plummer can stay one step ahead?
Admittedly, England responded superbly to that loss by repeating their Commonwealth Games win over Australia. Clearly, there is so little to separate the top five squads, the strength and depth of each of which is guaranteed to be seriously tested; but in a competition that will surely be decided by small margins; what is the decisive factor is actually the coach?
I’ve tried to be objective, because I’m English and I obviously want to see what would be an historic England win; but from the admittedly limited amount of knowledge that I hope I have, I believe that Australia will be consistent enough to reach the final. Their opponents..?
I’m sure many will disagree, but I’m going to say South Africa…
Back in the 1970s, the FA Cup Final was arguably the biggest day in the sporting calendar. There might only have been two television channels (instead of the 800+ UK stations that are currently available), but two-thirds of them would spend hours vying to grab the attention of the viewing public with special programmes, features and cup final episodes of favourites such as “It’s a Knockout” and “A Question of Sport”.
It was a magical day that was about so much more than 90 minutes of football … or 120 minutes … actually there was even the chance of a replay back then. These were also the days before squad rotation and giant killings became football folklore; shocks even happened in the final … “Porterfield!!!”
Perhaps these are just rose-tinted memories of the excitement of a bygone age; football has changed … television has changed … I have changed; and the fact is that the prospect of watching the 2019 FA Cup Final was completely overshadowed by the final of another competition – to the extent that I didn’t even know Manchester City had battered Watford 6-0 until midway through the evening.
That other final was the concluding game in the 2019 Netball Super League season – Wasps versus Manchester Thunder.
Those with a passing interest in general sport will be aware that England are the current Commonwealth Games netball gold medallists, and that Liverpool will be hosting the World Cup in a couple of months’ time; but one step below the international game is a competition that is capable of producing action and drama that can rival any sport whose popularity ensures much greater mainstream media coverage.
Obviously interest in (or appreciation of) any particular sport is subjective and my opinion is of no more merit than the next person; but top-level netball will showcase athletes that possess all the following qualities: determination, dedication, fitness, teamwork skill, movement, speed, co-ordination, vision, strength, flair, agility, and grace…
Of course, the majority of the foregoing are essential components of the make-up of many an elite athlete in a team sport. For me one of the defining differences is the fact that all these attributes are displayed on a court whose area is far more restricted than pitches used for the majority of outdoor sports. That gives a real intensity to the players’ speed of thought and movement – an intensity that is further heightened by a three-second rule that guarantees the momentum of the action.
The other quality that makes netball stand apart from so many other team sports is that word “grace”. Don’t be fooled into thinking that netball is a non-contact sport; there is a genuine physical aspect to the game that requires players (particularly in the respective circles) to have real strength of both body and mind.
Yet running parallel is an ability to produce moments that, in a split second, can bring a crowd to its feet – and change the course of a game. Watching a player having the ability to anticipate a pass and the presence and skill to get in front of an opponent and claim a flying interception (whilst still being able to release the ball or stop quickly enough to prevent a footwork call) is an amazing sight. Athleticism and elegance combining in a way that I’m not sure is regularly replicated in any other team format.
On Saturday, in front of a packed Copper Box Arena, Wasps held the advantage going into the final quarter, but in one of those split seconds, I felt the momentum (and ultimately the course of the game) swung towards Thunder. Laura Malcolm somehow got in front of Jade Clarke, and got the slightest touch to the ball which, in turn, flicked Jade’s hand as it went out of play.
Manchester effectively needed to make (and convert) three centre pass turnovers to bring parity to proceedings, and after Laura’s first intervention, Thunder goal keeper Kerry Almond earned the benefit of a tight call against Rachel Dunn to claim possession from the baseline. Moments later, Laura deflected a Wasps pass straight into the hands of her goal keeper and with replacement shooter Ellie Cardwell showing nerves of steel at the opposite end of the court, the deficit was overturned and an 11-goal swing in those final 15 pulsating minutes was enough to take the trophy back to the north-west.
It was an outstanding finish to a superb game. Manchester goal defence Emma Dovey was the official player of the match, but I must admit my vote would have gone to Liana Leota at wing attack, whose movement, availability, distribution and circle feeds under ever-increasing pressure were ridiculously good at times.
One of Manchester’s football team had lifted the FA Cup and the back page headlines were already being written before the city’s netball club could celebrate their outstanding success. The majority of interest and focus will be on City’s completion of a domestic treble (and there’s no doubt it is a tremendous achievement), but elsewhere in the capital, the ladies of Manchester Thunder produced their own brand of sporting magic; and as far as my Saturday viewing was concerned (and with apologies to David Coleman, Brian Moore et al), I definitely made the right choice.
One of the symptoms of a number of mental health conditions – including the dysthymia from which I suffer – is the mind’s ability to find the negative in almost any situation and instil an objectively disproportionate but subjectively almost overwhelming sense of failure.
Consequently, now might be considered as perhaps not the best time to be writing this blog; but I actually think it’s the perfect time…
Essentially yesterday was intended to be a “road trip” to visit ten professional rugby league grounds in seven hours, with the “challenge” (for the hundred-and-somethingth time) being used to raise mental health awareness and (for the first time) to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Gateshead Thunder’s debut season as a rugby league club.
As with any event of this kind, there had been plenty of planning … and Castleford, Wakefield, Dewsbury and Braford were all “ticked off” with a minimum of fuss.
I’d never been to in Castleford before, but Gateshead Thunder enjoyed a narrow win at “The Jungle” against Stuart Raper’s 1999 side in front of the Sky cameras – a result that gave the newly-assembled squad some real credibility given how strong Cas were that season.
My first ever Gateshead Thunder away game was at Wakefield. I stood in the corner of the ground, on the opposite side to the rest of the relatively small, but incessantly noisy Thunder Army, and watched as a likely defeat turned into an exhilarating victory with a last-minute try from Brett Grogan.
Dewsbury was a club that Thunder faced after the Super League adventure had ended. We played well there on a couple of occasions, but the home side were always just too strong.
I also stood on the Odsal terraces back in ’99, as the Bulls ran out comfortable winners. They had an outstanding squad and headed the division at the end of Super League IV, but lost out to St Helens in the Grand Final. Yesterday though, there was still as sense of euphoria around the stadium, after the club’s thrilling televised Challenge Cup win over Leeds Rhinos.
I’m sure the celebrations went on well into the West Yorkshire night, but judging by the number of plastic cups that were being cleared from the terraces, the alcohol had been flowing fairly freely during the 80 minutes as well.
The next leg of the journey was the 15 miles to Huddersfield. I’d heard on the news that the westbound M62 was shut, but was hoping that whatever the reason, the motorway would be back up and running when I needed to cross into Lancashire. The sat-nav said it would take 33 minutes to get to the John Smiths Stadium – it lied.
An hour and 15 minutes later I trundled into the car park and strolled into the stadium that had witnessed the first hat-trick to be scored by a Gateshead Thunder player. Deon Bird was the man who crossed for three tries 20 years ago … and it was fitting that I was wearing Deon’s original away shirt as I gazed out across the pitch.
Rochdale was only 15 miles away. The M62 was apparently still closed, but the sat-nav said an alternative route would take 66 minutes – it lied.
Two-and-a-half hours later, I was still (according to the ever-reliable technology) 57 minutes away, with stationary traffic queuing as far as the eye could see.
By then, it was a question of whether the car engine or my mobile would overheat first, and it soon became obvious that there was no realistic chance of reaching any (let alone all) of the remaining five grounds before offices would begin to close for the day; so I decided to turn the car round and head back east – a manoeuvre that I completed perfectly except for stalling on the uphill reverse section of my five-point turn.
As I drove home, I was just so disappointed. It’s hard to convey how I felt because the reality was that I’d simply got stuck in an unavoidable traffic jam. However I’ve always made a direct connection between whatever “challenge” I’ve attempted and the messages that it’s fine to talk about mental health or ask for help if you’re struggling … but how could I expect people to listen to those messages when I couldn’t even drive to ten rugby league grounds?
To many, it will sound trivial; but in my mind, at that moment, I’d failed.
And whilst I still can’t fully erase the feelings of failure that have accompanied me over the past 40 years, I am incredibly fortunate that since that first visit to my GP (some 15 years ago now), I have become able to speak openly about how I feel and equally importantly have the ability to take a step back and look at things with some objective clarity.
To me the admittedly simplistic connection between the challenges and talking about mental health has real validity. If I look beyond the initial sense of failure, there is perhaps a different message to take from the day…
Very few things in life are accomplished without some sort of effort. If we don’t try, we can’t realistically succeed. I didn’t reach all ten grounds … but I tried; and if I’d simply stayed at home, I wouldn’t have relived so many wonderful memories from years gone by.
Yesterday has reinforced the fact that there are always things in life that are out of our control – and even if it sounds naïve (or even contrived) the M62 simply reflected the reality of mental health recovery. It’s not easy, and sometimes there are setbacks along the way; but it’s so important to try … and keep trying … because you’re only ever one day away from a “better day” and one attempt away from achieving something amazing.
On the face of it, there is very little similarity between sitting down for lunch with one of the finest players in world netball and driving an old friend around various professional rugby league grounds.
There is a link, however, and it is simply to raise mental health awareness; to try and show that it is both fine to talk openly and honestly about such a difficult subject; and it is also fine to ask for help if you are struggling.
The message doesn’t come with any promises or guarantees. Everyone is different, and there are numerous mental health conditions with wide-ranging symptoms, the effect of which can contrast dramatically from person to person. Treatment can take many forms … and recovery lengths and levels can be equally varied; but however the future may unfold, the proverbial road must always begin with that first and toughest step.
It took me many years to have the self-awareness and strength to take that step; but the tears that fell down my face as I talked (for the very first time) to my doctor were undeniably a major turning point. Reaching the stage where I could write about the condition I have was another massively important moment. I haven’t “recovered”, but I am able to recognise I am very different to the person I was even a decade ago.
I’ve had such a lot of support, for which I am and always will be grateful; but I’ve also had to find reserves of strength that I didn’t believe I possessed to get to where I am.
Over time, I realised I wanted to do more to highlight the importance of being able to talk about the kind of things I’d fought so hard to hide since my teens. I am so glad I decided to attempt a series of what is now well over 100 “challenges” to raise mental health awareness … I have learned so much about myself and my condition, met so may inspiring people and (rather selfishly) been able to have numerous experiences to remember and cherish; but I’ve never lost sight of the underlying theme or message that has shaped so much of the past five or more years of my life.
Last Wednesday, I was lucky enough to spend a couple of hours in the wonderful company of South African netballer Maryka Holtzhausen (along with my friends Becky and Clive); this coming Monday, I will spend the day with Chris Hood, a friend I met through rugby league and have had the pleasure of knowing for the best part of 20 years.
We’ll be looking to visit the grounds of 11 (although it may end up being 10) professional rugby league clubs in eight hours. Of course, the event carries the mental health message, but will also allow Chris and I to take an extended trip down memory lane as 2019 marks the 20th anniversary of the debut season of Gateshead Thunder … a club whose history has been let’s say “turbulent”, but I’ve made a lot of friends through supporting the various incarnations of the club and this is my way of paying tribute to the original squad for what they helped to create.
It is also an opportunity to mention one of those players, Adam Maher, who is still in his 40s, but is battling Motor Neurone Disease. Adam couldn’t have been a top class forward without being blessed with great courage to match his ability – and he’s clearly going to need all that courage to face the hardest fight of all.
Adam will be in our thoughts throughout the day, but especially when we arrive at Rochdale Hornets, one of his former clubs…
I'm sure the conversations I had with Maryka will be very different from the ones I will have with Chris (and I expect Monday’s menu to be considerably less healthy too); but the fact remains that both days will only have happened because I asked for help...
The link remains simplistic – it is also still very powerful. Please don’t be afraid to ask for help if you are struggling. It is fine to talk about how you are feeling; you are not alone and things can, and do get better.
I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I’ve driven 440 miles to go out for lunch.
Actually, I can count the number of times on one finger…
The logical assumptions would be that any such trip would have to be in some way important or special; and both would be correct, as yesterday, I found myself strolling through the streets of Worcester (en route to Chesters Restaurant) discussing all things netball with one of the finest players in the sport.
Worcester is home to the Severn Stars Super League netball franchise; their captain is Maryka Holtzhausen, a South African international with 105 caps to her name (she is only the second South African to have reached the milestone) … and she had been kind enough to not only meet me, but to actually take time out of her day to go out for a bite to eat as part of my ongoing work to raise mental awareness.
As many of you will know, I’ve spent the past five-and-a-bit years undertaking all sorts of different “challenges”, all to try and show that it’s fine to talk about mental health and to ask for help if you’re struggling.
I wish there was a magic cure to the various conditions that affect so many lives, but whilst the road towards any level of recovery is likely to be hard, the “journey” (much as I hate the word) must always start with probably the hardest step of all. There are never any guarantees, but I’ve attempted all these challenges to prove that things can get better.
I’ve pushed myself to play (or at least try and play) various sports against some of the best this country has to offer; performed live stand-up comedy; sung live and in a recording studio; slept rough for a night; arranged to visit special places and meet some truly wonderful people … but this year is (almost) all about netball.
Through my involvement as a volunteer with Grangetown Netball Club (fourth-best in the country … have I mentioned that before?!), I have not only seen some fantastic sporting action, but have been lucky enough to meet some lovely people and even make some good friends. I’ve loved every minute and just felt that basing this year’s efforts around netball would be a positive thing to do.
Yesterday’s trip came about after six well-known netballers were chosen completely at random – my “challenge” being to try and meet them. As I have mentioned before, none of them had asked to be involved … and it would be (and still is) perfectly reasonable to assume that they might not want to spend any time in the company of someone they don’t know…
So, I would have to ask for help (from friends … friends of friends etc); but it’s fine to ask for help; and that albeit simplistic link with mental health remains as relevant and important to me now as it did when the challenges first began.
I am indebted to Becky Oatley, a former Stars defender and Wales international for arranging for me to meet Maryka – and for inviting Clive Jones along to make up the quartet round the dinner table. Becky won’t thank me for saying this, but she really is an inspiring young woman. I had met her once before, and it was wonderful to have the chance to spend a bit more time in her company.
Clive and I met for the first at the recent Wasps vs London Pulse game in Coventry; he has been incredibly generous and supportive, and it was great to catch up again.
The one person I hadn’t met before was Maryka, but I have to say it was an absolute privilege.
She is a charming and engaging young woman, with a humility that belies her ability and status as an elite athlete. We spoke at length about South Africa’s performances in the Quad Series and prospects in upcoming World Cup (which are extremely good I hasten to add), and during the meal the conversation covered many different aspects of netball, sport in general … even pottery got a mention!
It was such an enjoyable couple of hours, and very much a day to remember.
I’ve been so fortunate to have met Maryka and so many other amazing people over the past few years, but I still struggle to fully appreciate that those meetings only happened because I have had a mild, but chronic mental health condition for over 40 years.
During the last 15 of those years, I’ve been able to gain a better understanding of how my condition affects me, and what I need to do to cope with the “bad days”. With the love and support of those closest to me I have found the strength to be open about how I feel; yesterday I spent time with people who make a difference … I have to keep going and hope that one day I can do the same.