Every two years, the cycle of Olympic and Commonwealth Games allows the viewing public to be exposed to sports that rarely gain high profile exposure. One of those sports is netball.
The 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games netball competition was won by the all-conquering Australians, who defeated New Zealand in the final. The Silver Ferns had earned the right to play for the gold medal courtesy of a dramatic single-point semi-final victory over England, secured with just two seconds remaining after England had needlessly given away possession in the game’s final moments.
For England it was a heart-breaking end to a compelling game. From being moments away from contesting the final, they ultimately left Glasgow without a medal, after losing the bronze medal match to Jamaica’s “Sunshine Girls”.
Lower down the rankings, in ninth position, came Scotland. The host nation entered the competition seeded no.12, so their final standing represented a real achievement; and not only would the performance of the Scottish Thistles have a positive impact on netball north of the border, that impact would also be felt in Middlesbrough, home of National Premier 2 club Grangetown.
On court during the ninth-place play-off against Trinidad and Tobago last July were Hayley Mulheron, Jo Pettitt and Gemma Sole, all of whom have subsequently represented Grangetown during the current season. It has been a hugely beneficial association for Grangetown, and one that Gemma Sole has also enjoyed, even though her debut had come as a bit of a surprise:
“Two of our [Scottish] players had played for Grangetown a couple of weeks before. The club were looking to use the same players again, but due to their unavailability I got a call. The coaches at Grangetown had been in touch with our national coach, looking for extra players to bring some more experience to the Prem 2 side and to work alongside the club. I got a call one Saturday afternoon, saying ‘Gemma what are you up to tomorrow, do you want to play a game of netball?’ So I said ‘hey, why not!’ and off I went!
“I’ve been made extremely welcome; they’re a great bunch of girls, with great support behind the scenes; I’ve certainly been made to feel part of the club, and I really enjoy going down to play with them.
“I did think it was going to be a bit of a challenge joining an unfamiliar team,” Gemma continued. “During my first game, I was just trying to remember everyone’s name! Communication is such an important part of the game; I’m very vocal naturally and, as a team, we’ve managed to overcome any difficulties and create a really fluid, dynamic game just by maintaining a constant dialogue. Actually, Grangetown play a similar style of netball to my club at home, so in terms of the style and tactics, it’s actually been really easy for me to just slot in and join the girls, which is great.”
The twenty-four year old is also impressed with the standard of the league: “It’s very good actually; we’ve had some really competitive matches. Personally I play two positions. My first position is goal shooter, but I’ve been playing goal attack at Grangetown, which has been a great development opportunity for me. It’s a good standard of netball too, so it’s been a really positive experience to come down and get a good run out in a strong competition.”
Apart from her obvious ability, Gemma is hoping that she can make a difference to her team mates in other ways: “I have that international experience, and I’ve come to expect tough, highly contested games. So maybe I am more used to certain pressures, and hopefully I can help the players with things like trying to main focus and our composure in pressure situations.”
Pressure certainly didn’t come much greater than the four nation World Cup Qualifiers, which took place in May 2014. The Scottish side had made significant progress under their recently-appointed head coach, the experienced and inspirational New Zealander Gail Parata, but finishing in the top two would not only secure Scotland’s place in the World Cup, it would also guarantee an extension of funding that was otherwise due to end after the Commonwealth Games. International netball in Scotland is played by athletes that are both elite, yet amateur; two words that when combined always indicate incredible dedication, so whilst the potential rewards were fantastic, the price of failure would be devastating.
A narrow defeat to Wales was sandwiched between a crucial one-goal victory over Northern Ireland and a comprehensive win over the Republic of Ireland. The girls could do no more; their fate rested on the result of Wales against Northern Ireland. A Welsh win would see Scotland progress… the final score was Wales 51, Northern Ireland 43. The Thistles had booked their ticket for Sydney….
For Gemma Sole, being selected for the Commonwealth Games squad, representing her country in front of a home crowd, and helping Scotland to qualify for the World Cup were milestones in a sporting career that had started to develop in south west England. “I didn’t play a lot of netball at school,” Gemma explained. “When I left, I spent a year working and travelling before going down to the University of Bath, and that’s when I reconnected with netball and remembered how great it was. The facilities are outstanding and they’ve got so much depth: their second team was playing against only first teams from other universities. It’s almost impossible not to love netball when you’re down there, because it’s such a big part of the sporting community at Bath – the sporting community is massive – and it’s part of a network that you really want to be involved in, both as a student and as an athlete.”
Gemma made her international debut in 2010, aged just twenty, against India in a tournament played in Singapore; it was the first step that would lead to the Commonwealth Games and will hopefully continue with a place in the squad for the World Cup this August.
“2014 was a huge year for Netball Scotland. Not only was it a home [Commonwealth] Games, but it was also the first time that Netball Scotland had actually been involved in a Commonwealth Games, so it was a first on more than one level for us.
“We absolutely loved the experience; we took everything we could from it. It gave us a fantastic opportunity to build the profile of netball in Scotland. Netball Scotland membership has increased by 58% since the tournament, and that is massive; to have competed in the biggest competition possible for netball, and to have that kind of outcome in terms of people enjoying the competition, and people actually wanting to be part of netball in Scotland afterwards is fantastic. We now want to build a legacy and try and make netball the number one sport for girls in Scotland – and I think we’re well on our way.
“We beat Saint Lucia in our first game and the atmosphere was absolutely electric. The arena was very enclosed, with a low ceiling, and the buzz we got from the crowd is actually quite hard to describe; it was just incredible."
During the pool matches, the Thistles were beaten by the eventual finalists, New Zealand: “They were very good,” Gemma admitted, “But we knew they were going to be very good. They’re formidable opponents. Our coach Gail Parata knew all the girls before she became involved with Netball Scotland, so we do know their players and style of play reasonably well. We’re not competing with them yet, but it’s great to have exposure against world class teams, because it’s a good benchmarking opportunity for us; we know what we need to do to improve our game and, at the end of the day, their girls have got exactly the same physical attributes as us. They’ve got two arms, two legs, and we’ve just got to learn to use ours – and our heads – as well as they do.”
Looking forward, Gemma is well aware that the World Cup is looming larger on the horizon, but remains pragmatic about her own prospects: “The initial squad was selected in September, but we’ve come a long way since then, and there are definitely some difficult decisions ahead for Gail and the rest of the coaching staff when it comes to selections. There’s really tough competition for places, but we’re used to being constantly under scrutiny. This is a constant trial process; it’s about developing and building towards the World Cup.
“Personally I never take my place in the squad, or on the court for granted; it’s a huge honour to wear the Scottish dress and to represent your country, and it’s something we all take very seriously. That competition means there’s no room for complacency and we’re constantly pushing each other further, which is what brings you on as a team and as a wider squad.”
As with many talented athletes, Gemma has received great support from her parents. In Gemma’s case however, this has resulted in many an interview question, because her father is the former Scotland and British Lions prop forward, David Sole.
But Gemma is an international in her own right, and parental pride in her achievements was amply demonstrated in a recent BBC documentary.
The cameras were on hand to film the Sole family’s reaction to the call confirming Gemma’s place in the Commonwealth Games squad. After embracing his daughter, David declared that he’d taken numerous calls for rugby test and touring squads in the past, but he’d never felt as nervous as waiting to learn if Gemma would be going to the Games.
David and Gemma’s talents may lie in different sports, but Gemma recognises the importance her father has had on aspects of her development: “Well, he’s not been able to give me too many tips on how to catch a netball! But he’s given me so much advice about how to prepare for the big matches and competitions, and about how to maintain my focus and keep my cool in high pressure situations. That kind of support in terms of the psychological demands of competing at elite level is invaluable. He’s great when the training is getting particularly tough; he helps remind me why I love playing the game, and maintain perspective. It often just takes a couple of sentences to pick me up.
“For me, being part of a sporting family has been completely positive. We are all very competitive. I have three brothers, who are all involved in sport; my older brother Jamie plays rugby [for Edinburgh Academicals], and my two younger brothers are cricketers who have been involved in the national set up at junior level; but we’re also very supportive of each other. If there’s a Saturday afternoon when I don’t have national training I’ll either be watching Jamie play rugby in the winter, or Chris and Tom play cricket in the summer; and as for my parents, they seem to have been running between sports fields and pitches for... well forever really!”
As for the future, Gemma would love to have the opportunity to play again for Grangetown before the end of the season, and on the international stage, her ambitions are clear: “I want to be part of the World Cup squad and play in the tournament in Sydney in August. In terms of personal ambitions, I want to become the best I can be: our team mission is to be the best Scottish Thistles team ever. Our highest ever world ranking was six; we’re currently sitting at twelve and the aim is to get as close to that or even beat it if we can, before I retire.”
© Richard Kirby 2015
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