Dorothy Close first played netball at Royal Park more than half-a-century ago, on slippery, sometimes submerged, grass courts exposed to the elements. At the age of 82, she still umpires occasionally at the sport’s spiritual home. “Don’t tell anybody, though,’’ Close laughs. “They don’t know how old I am.’’
In fact, they do, for, after a 70-year involvement, Close remains both volunteer and pioneer. One old enough to have seen netball’s evolution, and that of its facilities, from before the game-changing moment when the original Royal Park Indoor Stadium – named after Anne Henderson, a leading figure in administration, coaching and umpiring – was opened in 1969.
The recent news that the Andrews Government has allocated $64.6 million in the 2018/19 State Budget to redevelop and expand its successor, the State Netball Hockey Centre, has been heralded as a landmark decision by the netball community. “Ecstatic. Absolutely ecstatic,” says Close.
Melbourne Vixens coach Simone McKinnis also hailed the plan to establish a Netball Victoria High Performance hub. “For us, it’s not just about netball courts, but everything that goes with it. At the moment we pretty much do recovery or ice baths in little pools or buckets, and you have to traipse your ice in there to do it.
“To have everything centralised and set up there will be amazing. Royal Park has always been the home for Victorian netball, but it really could become the centre of excellence for netball, full stop.’’
While remaining largely on its home turf, how far, in other ways, the sport has come. Close, a defender who went on to represent Australia, was 14 when she made her Melbourne Netball Club debut on the primitive grass courts in the middle of the former athletics track at the golf course end of the park. The pleated tunics were of the time; the footwear utterly inadequate in the often-hazardous conditions.
“You couldn’t imagine what we went through – rain, hail, wind, and we kept on playing,’’ recalls Close. “But the umpires were pretty good – they were pretty generous with their interpretation of the stepping rule if you were swimming in two inches of water.’’
The legendary Joyce Brown also remembers the grass court days, and was a university student when she first played on the asphalt additions that were laid in 1965. The schedule stretched to games on Saturdays and state training on Sundays with a night out dancing often in between, but the idea of a warm-up was still foreign ground for players who either arrived by public transport or cars that screeched to a halt as they jumped out and ran straight on court.
“The railway used to – and it still does – whip along the edge of one of the courts there, and the wind used to come roaring through,’’ says Brown, the former Australian captain and coach. “You’d throw the ball in from wing attack and it would lob back in your hands! But you didn’t stop, and the courts were filled the whole time.
“Then we finally got the Anne Henderson stadium, and it had slatted glass windows up high so that the dust from the zoo came in. It was a wooden sprung floor, four courts, and they were wonderful. We thought we were absolutely made. Which we were.’’
HQ then was an old army hut, also used for meetings and the first on-site sports creche in Victoria, according to Brown. Yet others used it, too. “There’d be homeless chaps there who’d slept underneath, so on a Sunday morning Anne Henderson would give them hot coffee – she was marvellous with them – and send them off down the road and then we’d train.’’
Close said the ability to charge players and spectators to enter was pivotal to the game’s financial progress, while the 2006 Commonwealth Games were a catalyst for replacing the old stadium – which, incidentally, was sold to a Wimmera Mallee farmer and used as a hay shed in Donald until reportedly burning down in 2007. Former players were given a piece of the wooden floor, with a plaque attached, as a memento.
“The old Anne Henderson stadium and the old change rooms, I just so clearly remember going there,’’ says Geelong-based McKinnis. “It was an amazing old place, and I have very fond memories. And all the outside courts, we had to play there on a Saturday, too, to be eligible to play for Victoria. I just remember it as the coldest place on earth, but rain, hail or shine you were outside.’’
Construction of the current complex, including a 3000-seat feature court initially used by national league teams Phoenix and Kestrels, was not without its challenges. Some members of the local community expressed concerns about the loss of green space and protested the original development in 2001.
Yet despite the progress from the humble beginnings of a multi-purpose army hut to the far superior SNHC, Brown agrees that “it’s time” for a rebuild to service the vast numbers of players that need more and better facilities. That includes the Vixens at the pointy end, yet although more than 5,000 netballers compete at all levels there each week, many more are on waiting lists or forced to play elsewhere.
How significant? “It means that we’ve come right up the ranks of professional sport and that we’ve been recognised for not only the numbers – and the participation rate is still massive – but that we’ll have a great facility to do our professional training in,’’ says Brown.
“We won’t have to travel all over the place to do weights here, sprints there, court work, and so on. I’ll feel very proud that at last we’ve been given a stamp of high approval about our performance, and the work we do in the community. All the women who’ve worked so hard – and no doubt there’s been some useful men along the way! – are to be congratulated.’’
Indeed, when Brown arrives for her regular visits to Vixens training, she looks at the huge, ancient oak tree in front of the stadium steps and thinks “my goodness, it could tell some stories”. So it could, with more to come.
By Linda Pearce, multi-award-winning netball writer with over 30 years experience.