Victorian dominance

In 1963, when the Australian netball team for the inaugural world tournament arrived in England after almost four weeks at sea, captain Joyce Brown was among five Victorians in the 10-strong squad coached by another state great, Lorna McConchie.[/caption]

This week, further north in the British city of Liverpool, the Big V again boasts a remarkably strong symbolic presence, with Netball Victoria pathway products Liz Watson, Jo Weston, Caitlin Thwaites and Kelsey Browne comprising one-third of the top-ranked Diamonds’ team.

Third-year Vixen Kadie-Ann Dehaney is at her second World Cup for her native Jamaica; Bupa VNL players Solia Ropati and Tee Salanoa, plus another local, Ariana Luamanu, are representing Samoa; and City West Falcons shooter Tharjini Sivalingam, who is based semi-permanently in Melbourne, is continuing her international career with Sri Lanka.

Diamonds coach Lisa Alexander is one of three Victorian-bred head coaches, along with Norma Plummer (South Africa) and Dan Ryan (Northern Ireland). Julie Richardson is managing her second Australian World Cup team, and umpires Marc Henning and Michelle Phippard are both Victorian-made.

At a stretch, we could include the well-travelled but now Melbourne-based Magpie pair of Geva Mentor (England) and April Brandley (Australia), and a cheerio to the colourful Sharni Layton on debut in the commentary box, too.

You get the picture. Suffice to say that what was once known as the Garden State is a flourishing netball nursery.

“First and foremost, our aim is always to provide an environment where Victorians, whether they be athletes, coaches, or umpires, have the opportunity to become the very best they can,’’ says Netball Victoria’s General Manager – Vixens, Performance and Pathways, Rebekah Webster.

“Having Victorians reach the pinnacle of our sport showcases a really strong pathway, that we have an environment they can thrive in. And what we’re seeing now is a real diversity of athletes playing in Victoria who are competing for other nations but choosing Victoria to ply their trade.’’

Webster said the responsibility for Victoria to align with Netball Australia’s objectives was one taken seriously; Diamonds’ success is the ultimate goal. But the more athletes and coaches getting exposure to the top level of the sport, the more beneficial for the pathway underneath.

“There are only 177 players who have ever been a Diamond, so it’s a really small and select group of athletes,’’ Webster says. “But the World Cup is the pinnacle of netball, and to have as many Victorians as we can to experience that is only good for the growth of our game here.

“Those players then come back and play in the Bupa Victorian Netball League, and the experience that they bring back with them, the love for the game they share and inspire in others, is fantastic.’’

The Mwai Kumwenda example is both cultural education and general inspiration. First spotted at the 2009 World Youth Cup in the Cook Islands, the Malawian superstar moved to Frankston to play for Bupa VNL club the Peninsula Waves, and, after three ANZ Championship seasons in New Zealand, eventually returned to Victoria to represent the Vixens in 2017.

“It’s just a fantastic story of how the netball journey can be so different, yet ultimately the destination is the same,’’ says Webster, of a tale that started with a makeshift ball, playing barefoot on a dirt court in a small African village, and continued onto player-of-the-tournament honours at the 2015 World Cup in Sydney.

Four years on, Kumwenda is absent from Liverpool as she prepares to return from a ruptured ACL, and Webster is also in Melbourne watching as many matches live or on replay as possible.

She has liked the impact Dehaney has made coming off the bench for the Sunshine Girls, the outstanding form of Weston in defence, 50-gamer Thwaites in attack, and vice-captain Watson and dual MVP Kelsey Browne in the midcourt.

As for the great Joyce Brown, who not only captained that first title-winning team but coached the successful 1975, 1983 and 1991 versions, she rates the performances in the opening three pool games as “OK”, but expects the teamwork will take a little longer to develop considering the lack of established combinations and minimal time spent together before the Diamonds departed.

It was all quite different in Joyce’s day – as were the travel arrangements. Each morning in 1963, the Australians would train on the ship’s deck, with many balls thrown overboard.

Travelling is swifter now, and the 2019 journey for this Diamonds team was less eventful. Even if the 11-time champions are hoping the end result will be the same.

Written by Linda Pearce