For the first time in netball history, women and men will play at the same global tournament, at next week’s Fast5 World Series in Christchurch. And it could be the catalyst for netball becoming an Olympic sport, Merryn Anderson reports.
Netball New Zealand have had World Cups, Commonwealth Games gold medals, Fast5 trophies and many more accolades in their trophy cabinet over their rich history.
But what if they could add an Olympic medal to their collection?
It’s a dream that could become a possibility in just 10 years from now, with netball hoping to be on the list for the 2032 Brisbane Olympics.
And next month’s Fast5 Netball World Series might be the catalyst.
Christchurch will be holding this year’s Fast5 tournament over two days, with six women’s teams competing with each other for the trophy. New Zealand have been the dominant Fast5 team, winning seven of nine editions, including the most recent in 2018.
But for the first time, three men’s teams will be included in the event, playing each other for their own trophy.
It’s the first time in the history of the sport that both men’s and women’s teams will be competing at the same global tournament.
It’s a move that’s been a long time coming, says World Netball vice-president Shirley Hooper.
“The last time we did a survey, somewhere between 60 and 70 percent of our member nations around the world have men and boys playing netball in some form,” Hooper explains.
“It might be junior netball, it might be social netball, might be indoor netball. It’s just that the elite form of the men’s game has pretty much been invisible.”
A qualification to becoming an Olympic sport is to have both men and women competing in the event, but what exactly an equal gender balance means is “the million dollar question”, says Hooper.
When the 2032 Olympics were won by Brisbane, Netball Australia declared their intent to have netball played in the global Games, something World Netball fully supports.
“It’s in our constitution that we will always strive to be an Olympic sport…one of the largest women’s teams sports in the world should be seen at an Olympic Games,” Hooper says.
Whether that be traditional netball or Fast5 is still to be seen. With the Olympics and Commonwealth Games often preferring the shorter, faster formats of sports, like rugby sevens and T20 cricket, Fast5 could very well get the nod to engage new audiences.
“This Fast5 series will be the first time we’ve showcased the men’s game alongside the women’s game, so it’s a big step for us,” says Hooper, who explains it was always the plan to develop the men’s game, even before the opportunity for Olympic inclusion was introduced.
“I love seeing how different styles of people from different parts of the world – whether they’re male, female, whatever – play the game differently. It’s brilliant, long let it continue.”
Silver Ferns assistant coach Deb Fuller says the chance for netball to be an Olympic sport would mean a lot to everyone involved.
“That would be huge for our sport to enter into Olympic level, whether it be Fast5 or whether it actually will be the traditional game,” she says.
“Both forms of the game when they’re played at international level are of high quality, high pace and can also gather a following of countries to inspire youth, which is what the objective of the Olympics is isn’t it?
“It’s a movement of people recognising their national identity and following athletes through a series of competitions and seeing themselves as those athletes. So if that’s the Olympic objective, then netball is definitely meeting that.”
The New Zealand Men’s team have their own history and strong culture, and have played against the Silver Ferns decades, at trainings behind closed doors until recently.
“That’s how a lot of the national teams are – they’ve been doing their own things quietly but they’ve never had the public profile,” Hooper says.
New Zealand was the first country to televise men’s netball in 2019, when the New Zealand Men competed in the Cadbury Netball Series, and continue to break ground by scheduling annual games between the Silver Ferns and the NZ Men.
The NZ Men played Australia’s men’s team in the Trans-Tasman Cup earlier this month, with two of the games televised on Sky Sport. The Australian men won the series 2-1. Next week an invitational NZ men’s side will play the England Thorns in Christchurch.
Fuller says the men’s team have always been a big part of netball in New Zealand, especially as opposition for the Ferns.
“They’ve been able to provide us with a different game style to remind us of the variety with how you can play the game. There’s so much you can do with a game of netball and you’ve got to be able to be open-minded to look at different game styles,” Fuller says.
Playing against the men’s style, and opponents who are generally bigger and stronger, can benefit players at any level, says Fuller, who’s involved in netball in the Bay of Plenty as well.
“There’s a lot of boys playing and it’s quite interesting to see the girls who play with them, what they learn from playing with strong boys who take the ball well, who are accurate and who really dominate the space,” she explains.
“It’s a whole other layer of learning when you have to adjust your traditional way of thinking about things to a new opposition who’s bigger, faster, stronger. I think it’s an advantage for us to take parts of the men’s game and learn from it, you can only grow your own game from playing that opposition.”
Fuller will lead the Fast5 Ferns this year, having coached the team to victory at the last tournament.
The Ferns lost by one goal to a strong Jamaican side in pool play, and had a short turnaround to face them five hours later in the final, which they held on to win 34-33.
“We had a really balanced team and we were just able to be composed in the final moments of the game,” Fuller remembers. “That’s probably my best memory – seeing the team realise they could match it with the Jamaicans and that our strategy was right for those moments of pressure.”
Fast5 benefits fast playing and fast thinking, with the high-risk, high-reward style of play, but players can also take lessons from Fast5 into traditional netball.
“The bonus of having long-range, accurate shooters is really important, and also being able to win rebounds is a massive part of Fast5,” Fuller says. “So those two skills alone definitely help players progress into the traditional game.
“Because you don’t have a wing attack and wing defence, there’s a lot of space you need to fill on the court but also a lot of space you can take advantage of. I really love seeing the ball speed through court and just finishing with the finesse of a beautiful high shot.”
Fuller is hoping the Fast5 Ferns can tee up a practise game against the New Zealand men next week, and will be watching the men’s games alongside the women’s in the tournament.
“We learn so much from how they play,’ Fuller says. “We learn about the different skills, the way they turn in the air, the aerial play they have and their creativity in being able to expand the netball court with how they use the ball.”
The NZ men’s Fast5 skills will be on display for the first time, but Fuller says the Ferns’ success in the shorter format comes down to the Kiwi style of play.
“I think first and foremost it’s our physical fitness – one of the things we pride ourselves on has been physically fit and strong and fast netballers,” Fuller says.
“Netball is a precision game so you need to be able to play at high speed and be accurate with your skills and your placement, be able to hunt the ball on defence so it plays well into how we play.”
In World Netball’s 2020 strategic plan, they discussed the need to make netball accessible for all.
“We realised, just as rugby and cricket and everyone else realised, they are 50 percent of the population you can’t ignore – and they’re already playing our sport,” Hooper says. ” So let’s do what we can to open that up and grow and see where that takes us.”
*The Fast5 Netball World Series takes place in Christchurch on November 5 and 6, with all games live on Sky Sport.