Net Gains

England’s netball team are in Sydney for the World Cup. With three players, as well as coach Tracey Neville from the north, Femke Colborne hears about their prospects

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When the England netball team step out on to the court at the World Cup in Australia this month, expectations will be high. Tracey Neville’s squad of 12 is England’s strongest team yet, with a promising mix of experienced players and young talent. Some pundits are saying they have a chance of winning the title for the first time in history. But dealing with pressure has not always been England’s strong point.

In 2014, the team met world champions New Zealand in the semi-final of the Commonwealth Games. They led the Kiwis almost the whole way through the hour-long game, only to be defeated with a single shot in the final seconds that gave New Zealand a 35-34 victory. The result left the team visibly devastated and there were tears on the courtside. And things were to get even worse: in the bronze medal match, England were defeated in the final quarter again, losing 52-48 to Jamaica.

As a result of these heart-breaking defeats Neville, who took over as England coach in March, has been focusing on improving the team’s performance under pressure. Intense training includes strength and conditioning, simulated altitude cycling sessions – and warm-up matches mimicking the exact conditions they will face in Australia.

Neville is prosaic about the team’s experience in Glasgow.

“Whether you win or lose a game by 20 goals or one goal, it’s still a loss. You don’t get any extra points; you don’t get any extra morale. Yes, you can say we were nearly there, but at the end of the day you’ve got to be able to put it out on court – and I don’t think we did that. Our error rate was too high and we were relying too heavily on key players to perform. We were not accountable for our own performances and we failed to develop consistency across the whole team.”

Neville, who was born in Bury and is sister of footballers Phil and Gary Neville, has a reputation for being a straight talker. A former England netballer herself, she retired in 2008 and has since been involved in projects to raise the profile of the sport. She is also an experienced coach in the Netball Superleague, most recently at Manchester Thunder. “I’m very honest and quite direct,” she admits. “And I know from history that we can get a team to believe. I’m very good at creating team atmosphere.

“Our error rate was too high and we were relying too heavily on key players.”

“At this stage, I don’t think it’s about coming in with new ideas. I’ve only had seven weeks with the team going into the World Cup. It’s more about bringing it all together and making sure they are putting out the performance that they truly deserve. There is no doubt that the girls are passionate for England and the morale is high. I’ve said to them, let’s take everything off the table and just go out and perform. I don’t think that’s something they did to their best at the Commonwealth Games.”

At 31, Jade Clarke is one of the most experienced members of this England team. Born in Partington, she played her first World Cup in Jamaica in 2003 and this will be her fourth. She agrees with Neville’s assessment that the team simply didn’t perform well enough in Glasgow.

“At the time it was devastating and we took our time to grieve. But that is the kind of thing that can make or break you, and it has driven us to be the best we have ever been. After a defeat like that, the first thing you want to do is get back on the court, and now we finally have the chance to do that.”

Clarke, who at 5ft 8ins is the shortest member of the team and plays centre court, has been impressed by Neville’s approach. “She has been a real taskmaster. Everything has been about putting ourselves under pressure and in extreme situations. Tracey has been putting us through our paces, recording errors, and everyone has been responding really well. She wants us to be able to keep our own style and structure, even under pressure.”

Clarke is one of five players in the squad who play in the ANZ Championship, the premier netball league in Australia and New Zealand. Unlike the Netball Superleague in the UK, the ANZ Championship is semi-professional. Australia and New Zealand have dominated world netball for decades, so this increased presence in the ANZ Championship has given the England players the chance to learn from the best.

UK_English netball player Jade Clarke at 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow
Jade Clarke of England (left) vies for the ball during 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. Photo: Reuters/Phil Noble

“We can’t discount the contribution of the ANZ Championship to the development of individual players,” Neville says. “Those players going out there and experiencing the top-level competition, week in week out, is something that has to be part of the England netball pathway going forward. Coming back to our team, they contribute a lot and create a training environment that is world class.”

Sara Bayman, 30, Manchester Thunder captain and another centre court player, is another of the squad’s more experienced players. Born in Manchester, she got her first cap in 2007 in New Zealand but missed the 2011 World Cup in Singapore due to injury. Bayman flirted with different sports when she was young and even played for the England under-16s football team. She chose netball because of its strong team ethic.

“I like netball because you have set positions and very clear roles. Because of that, it’s the ultimate team sport. No one on the court can do everything and that sense of a group outcome has always appealed to me.”

At the other end of the spectrum, Helen Housby, 20, is one of English netball’s brightest young hopes. Born in Carlisle, she also plays for Manchester Thunder and earned her first cap for England at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. Housby, who plays goal attack and goal shooter, is studying zoology at Manchester University and wants to work in veterinary science and research (most of the team have full or part-time jobs, training around their work and taking time off for tournaments).

England netball coach Tracey Neville
England coach Tracey Neville. Photo: PA/Barrington Coombs

“Last year, if you’d told me I was going to get called up for the Commonwealth Games, I’d have laughed at you,” she says.

Housby says being a shooter comes with its own unique pressures because “the game is won and lost on whether you put the ball in the net”. But she also believes a little pressure can be a good thing: “Nerves are healthy. If you’re not nervous then there is something wrong. The team is good and we are excited. We have world-class players all the way through the squad and we have as good a chance as anyone.”

The rise of the England team in recent years has also been accompanied by increasing interest in watching netball. Sky Sports began televising the Netball Superleague in 2005, and matches are now commonly played in front of audiences of thousands in glitzy venues with mascots, blaring music and pre-match entertainment. This new exposure has also coincided with increased funding from Sport England and a marked increase in participation in netball at a social level – it is now estimated that more than 150,000 people play the sport in the UK every week.

“If I look at where I started, my coach used to sit on a wooden bench at the side of the court,” Neville says. “We presented in an arena last night and they were putting out 2,000 fans. Every year, netball is getting stronger, more visual, and people are becoming more interested in it. It has moved on so much from where I was and I hope I’ll still be part of the game to see netball where I would ideally like it to be.”

Netball has no doubt also benefited from the increasing profile of women’s team sports in general. The past 12 months in particular have been remarkable. First, the women’s rugby team took home the World Cup in August last year; then, this summer, England’s women became the country’s most successful football team in half a century, winning bronze at the World Cup. If the England netball team can fulfil its potential in Australia, it will certainly make for a neat triple.

Which brings us back to pressure. Has Neville been feeling it?

“No. We’ve never won a world cup. We’ve never even been in the final. The only pressure we should feel is the pressure we put on ourselves to actually go out and perform. I am going to have to make some difficult decisions in the world cup and it’s my first one, but that’s a different kind of pressure. At the end of the day, I’m a realist, and to say we are going to win the world cup is pretty unrealistic. But that’s not saying that we can’t.”

The Netball World Cup is on 7-16 August (  

Main photo: England’s Stacey Francis, Sonia Mkoloma, Eboni Beckford-Chambers, Helen Housby, Rachel Dunn, Pamela Cookey, Tamsin Greenway, Geva Mentor, Jade Clarke, Sara Bayman, Joanne Harten and Serena Guthrie. (PA/Barrington Coombs)

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