Usually, these articles start off with the same old question: When did you start playing netball? I wanted to come up with a new, different, exciting way of opening the conversation; but I’m very much a creature of habit; so…when did Abbie first start playing netball?!
“I first started at school when I was about twelve. Not by choice though; I was made to play … they needed someone tall!
“I was actually a swimmer up until that point, but by the time I was fifteen, I’d stopped swimming and was concentrating on netball. My first club was Harrogate Phoenix, but when I started at Queen Ethelburga’s School, they advised me to move to Leeds Athletic, and then I joined Grangetown at eighteen.”
Abbie also represented Yorkshire Jets at under 17 and under 19 levels, as well as Team Northumbria under 21s. She played alongside current Grangetown team mates Claudia Heath at Leeds and the Jets, and both Brie Grierson and Tuaine Keenan were in the Jets’ Super League squad when she was playing under 19s.
Abbie has already mentioned her height (she stands 6’ 2”), and whilst Grangetown supporters have only seen her in the goal shooter and goal attack bibs, I wondered if she had ever played in any other position?
“In year 7 at school I was actually a goal keeper. It wasn’t until I joined Harrogate [Phoenix] at fourteen, that I was given a chance to shoot. I’m comfortable at goal shooter, but I do enjoy having the chance to play at goal attack … it’s nice to be able to run around the court every now and again!”
Abbie’s educational pursuits took her from her Yorkshire home to Newcastle, so what prompted a new university student to travel to Middlesbrough for club netball? And just how easy was it to fit in to a new club?
“I was training at my old school, during the summer before I went to university, Gel [Williams] happened to be there, and Te [Aroha Keenan] took me over to speak to her. Grangetown had just been relegated to Prem 3 and I think a few players must have left the club; Gel said they were looking for a new shooter and it all went from there really.
“I found it really easy to fit in at Grangetown. Everyone was so friendly and welcoming and there was a nice vibe around the club. Everyone wants you there, and wants you to do well. We’re playing in a strong division, but we’re not put under loads of pressure, and that actually helps us to go out and play our best netball.”
Interestingly, during a number of previous interviews and conversations, several players had singled out Abbie for the extent that her game had developed and improved during her first two full seasons – both of which ended in promotion – but how does Abbie assess her own progress?
“I’m so much stronger physically. I go to the gym a lot more and all the strength and conditioning work has definitely helped. The coaches are great and they’ve certainly played a big part in developing my game, and out on court, it’s been great to play alongside Ash [Neal], Brie and Ria [Small]. I particularly love watching Ash and Brie play together; how they think, move, and combine. All three of them understand my game and how I move in the circle, and they just feed so well … they’ve made a big difference.
“And training with the Team Northumbria squad when I was in the under 21s helped a lot too. You learn so much when you’re on court with girls like Brie, Claudia and Chiara [Semple].”
Watching on from the sidelines, I would add that Abbie has also grown massively in confidence over the past two-and-a-bit seasons. There were occasions early in her career at Grangetown when experienced defenders were able to affect her performance, deny her easy opportunities or pressurise her into missing shots.; but watching the talented, but relatively raw teenager blossom into a strong and assured young woman on court has been both fascinating and fantastic.
Of course, netball is a team game, but any successful side needs someone dependable in the circle, and in my opinion, Abbie simply has to be one of the best shooters outside Super League…
Looking back at the end of last season, it must have been a wonderful feeling not just to secure promotion to Prem 1, but to do so as champions. How does Abbie reflect on that win at Clan?
“It was great … I got to play goal attack!
“I think it was important knowing that we would go straight into Prem 1 if we won that last match. We didn’t have to worry about goal average or anything like that; it was all in our own hands. From what I remember, we were always in control of the game, and everyone was so happy afterwards. The atmosphere on the way back was fantastic; and it was lovely that some supporters were able to make the trip too.
“I did find all the travelling difficult at first, but I’m starting to get used to the long journeys; I even look forward to them – although it definitely helps when you’re winning!”
Being promoted twice at the first time of asking is remarkable, but competing in Prem 1 was always going to present a new set of challenges. How big is the change from Prem 2 to Prem 1?
“It’s a massive step-up. So many Super League players are at Prem 1 clubs. You do see the odd one or two in Prem 2, but most of the Prem 1 squads have two or three, or maybe more. Every game you know you’re going to be facing a big name … the players are so much stronger, which is why I needed to get stronger too. It can be quite scary at times, but we’ve done well so far.”
A slight understatement perhaps?!
“Although it can be quite daunting to go up against a really top player, it’s good to push yourself, and know that if you play well, you can get your shots in and compete with some of the best players in the country.
“Sometimes as a shooter, it can be hard not to let the defender get in your head. I’m lucky that I’m tall and there aren’t many players who can tip the ball when I’m shooting, but I still get nervous. I just have to remember all the hours of practice I’ve done and take confidence from knowing that I can shoot.”
Just as a spectator, it has been enjoyable to see so many outstanding players out on court, but from the perspective of someone who is right in the middle of the action, do any players stand out in particular?
“Chiara Semple is one of the best I’ve ever played with or against,” came the immediate response. “I’ve always admired her; the way she carries the ball, the skill she has. I’ve learned a lot from her and we’re also very good friends. She plays in the same position as me though, so if I had to pick someone I’ve played directly against, I’d probably say Razia Quashie.
“She plays for Mavericks in Super League and recently made her England debut, but she was in the Academy side in our first game of the Prem 1 season. She really was very good. Solid and so strong, you just couldn’t move her – she was actually moving me; and it was so hard just trying to stand my ground next to someone so strong.
“She played at goal keeper and Academy also had Vicki Oyesola at goal defence. Vicki plays alongside Tuaine at Loughborough Lightning, and I actually came up against her in a university game earlier this week. She’s such a good player too, and Vicki and Razia are probably the best defensive combination I’ve faced.”
Grangetown have certainly exceeded all realistic expectations this season – some of the performances have been brilliant to watch. I was interested in how Abbie assesses the squad’s progress, and whether such a run of almost uninterrupted success can actually feel slightly surreal?
“I think it was really good that I joined the club in Prem 3, so I’ve seen at first hand how we’ve progressed. We’ve had the same close core group with players like Vicky [Rees], Ria, Katie [Walton], Jenny [Mrozik] and Gen [Slater], and we’ve just got better every year.
“I was maybe a little sceptical about Prem 1,” she continued, “it is such a big jump, but although it does seem a bit surreal to see Grangetown sitting in the top five, we’ve worked incredibly hard to be where we are. We’re all so happy for Gel too. She’s put so much into the club, and it’s great to see her reaction whenever we win.”
The club’s main aim at the start of this season was to do well enough to preserve Prem 1 status. I personally thought the win away at Academy just before Christmas was the moment when “safety” was guaranteed. I can completely understand that the players and coaches would be more guarded though, but the recent win at Premier Romans was Grangetown’s seventh in twelve games.
No club has been relegated with seven wins and with Worcester and Premier Romans well adrift at the foot of the table, I’m totally comfortable that Grangetown have more than fulfilled their pre-season ambition … and much more besides. With that in mind, I finished this thoroughly enjoyable chat with yet another stock question … this time about netball ambitions.
“Actually, right nowI don’t have a lot of ambitions in netball,” Abbie readily admitted. “I’m due to graduate next summer, then I’m going to do my Masters in Law after that. I’ll have a lot of work to do, and managing my netball and training and netball around my studies will be quite challenging; but I love playing at Grangetown and I’ll definitely be back next season … if they’ll have me!”
I think they might, Abbie!