Netball: Proteas plotting top return

By Dana Johannsen

There are two million registered players in South Africa compared to 120,000 in New Zealand. Photo / Regi Varghese
There are two million registered players in South Africa compared to 120,000 in New Zealand. Photo / Regi Varghese

Once an emerging powerhouse in world netball, South Africa's struggles in the Quad Series have highlighted the vast gulf that exists between the Proteas and the top tier nations.

New Zealand and Australia's duopoly on the international game has been reinforced during the four nations tournament, which moves to Wellington next week following today's match-ups in Sydney, with both easily dealing with England and South Africa in their opening games.

England's struggles can largely be put down to the team being severely under-strength, with coach Anna Mayes opting not to select some of her leading stars as they could not make themselves available for an earlier test series.

But South Africa's woes are much more indicative of a national programme that has fallen well behind the professional standards set by the world leaders.

South African coach Elize Kotze accepted coming into the series they may well be on the wrong end of some one-sided scorelines. But she said if her side were going to improve their standing in world netball, they needed more regular exposure against the top tier sides.

"This is a very good opportunity to find out if we are ready to compete in this type of league, and what is needed to improve. This is the only way South Africa will learn," she said.

South Africa are one of the few sides to have beaten the Silver Ferns at a world championships. Their famous victory in 1995, led by a young supershooter by the name of Irene van Dyk, was thought of at the time as the emergence of a new world power in netball. Little had been seen of the Proteas before that tournament, having been expelled from international netball from 1969 to 1994 due to apartheid. Their second placing at the Birmingham world championships was just the shake-up world netball needed, even if it was at New Zealand's expense.

But since then, South African netball has been on a steady decline. The defection of van Dyk and Leana de Bruin to New Zealand certainly hit them hard but their drop-off in competitiveness also coincided with a move towards more sophisticated structures in this part of the world.

While their athletes did not get paid a full-time wage, by the late 90s, Australia and New Zealand were becoming more professional in their approach. Netball New Zealand established a new league - the National Bank Cup - providing our elite players with intense competition week-in, week-out.

With over two million registered players in South Africa, the Proteas have a bigger talent pool to draw on than any other nation. But they are only just beginning to put the pathways in place to foster that talent.

In April next year, South Africa will launch the netball premier league (NPL) - a new professional franchise-based competition. With the aim of helping to boost the profile of women's sport in that part of the world, the South African government helped netball bosses secure a historic five-year broadcasting deal for the competition.

Former South African captain Dr Elsje Jordaan believes having a well-managed professional league will help the Proteas bridge the gap on the top tier sides, but she is realistic about the timeframe involved.

"I believe it will take about 10 years or the 10,000 hours required to get South African netball to international leading standard, and about three to four years to get the top international teams to want to play us again," she said.

But Jordaan is excited about the potential of South African netball if they can put in place the high performance programmes of the leading nations.

"If you compare the number of registered players in South Africa, with that of Australia and New Zealand, which have around 300,000 [and 120,000] respectively, then you get some sense of what can be achieved here with the right input," she says.

Earlier this month a delegate of South African sports officials travelled to Australia to meet netball bosses to advise them on establishing a new competition.

- Herald on Sunday

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_n4 at 21 Apr 2014 15:05:33 Processing Time: 629ms