Dana Johannsen

Dana Johannsen is a NZ Herald’s chief sports reporter

Special report: Top heavy scene hard on the rest

In the second of this two-part series, we investigate the damage being done to the credibility of the international game.

Waimarama Taumaunu. Photo / Richard Robinson
Waimarama Taumaunu. Photo / Richard Robinson

The push towards professionalism with the advent of the transtasman league has come at the expense of the international game, some onlookers have warned.

With athletes dedicating more time to training and given access to greater resources than they've had before, the ANZ Championship has increased the skill level and player depth in New Zealand and Australia.

Already sitting well above the rest of the world, the fierce week-in, week-out transtasman competition has enhanced world netball's duopoly.

Silver Ferns coach Waimarama Taumaunu believes the quality of New Zealand netball has moved more in the past five years than it had in the 15 years before that.

The changes in the attitude of the players hit home to Taumaunu at the national camp earlier this year, when many members set new benchmarks with their fitness testing.

"Traditionally in New Zealand you rock up in January, and you're not really in great nick and we're a bit slow to get going, but that was not the case at all," Taumaunu says.

"There is evidence of really good preparation in the off-season and I think that has been one of the best by-products of the professional era."

Star import keen on second title

Former Silver Fern Linda Vagana, who coached Samoa from 2004-11, believes the move towards professionalism has led to diminishing competitiveness in the international game.

"The competition is great, but it's come with its losses," says Vagana. "New Zealand and Australian netball have become even more powerful, and the rest of the world is falling behind."

Netball New Zealand chief executive Raelene Castle doesn't disagree with the criticism the transtasman league has only broadened the gulf between Australasia and the rest of the world, "but we can't stay still to let the rest of the world catch up".

As a board member of the International Netball Federation (INF), Castle admits the state of the international game is a huge concern.

"The single biggest challenge facing international netball is to get six genuinely competitive teams, so at a world championship you do not know who the top four will be, and who the finalists will be."

Pacific Islands netball were especially hard hit by the arrival of the transtasman league.

The eligibility rules have acted as a deterrent for New Zealand and Australian-based players with Pacific Island roots from representing these nations, because they would be considered an import. With franchises only allowed to sign up to two ineligible players (which must be cleared by their national body first), Vagana says there have been cases where franchises have talked players out of representing Samoa as it would jeopardise their future contract.

The situation led Samoa Netball to change their selection policy a few years ago. With New Zealand-based players opting to chase professional contracts, Samoa Netball realised it could no longer rely on overseas-based players, instead focusing on developing home-grown talent and building its player pool.

As a result, Samoa have taken a slide down the world rankings, finishing 12th at the 2011 world championships in Singapore, after being sixth in the world four years earlier.

"We've lost the momentum to grow the sport globally because the ANZ Championship is now seen as the be all and end all," says Vagana.

England's historic three-test win over the Diamonds in January has given many cause for hope that there are other teams coming through to challenge the dominance of the Australasian sides. But given this was the same English team that couldn't get within 20 goals of Australia in the Quad Series three months before, it remains to be seen whether the series win represents a new dawn for England netball or just a poor tour from an understrength Diamonds team.

The transtasman league has created more of a catch-22 situation for countries like England and Jamaica.

Their star players have benefited from the opportunity to experience world-class competition week-in, week-out, and are able to take their learnings back to their national teams. But the ANZ Championship season has also been disruptive for their national programmes, prompting England coach Anna Mayes to take a hardline stance. Mayes requires her players to make themselves available for the full international season, including all training and selection camps. This approach has seen veteran players like Geva Mentor, Sonia Mkoloma and Jade Clarke spurned from the national team as they were unable to travel back to the UK to meet all the commitments.

Mentor said she would dearly love to play for England again, but she is unsure if a compromise can be reached with England Netball.

"It's a really tough one at the moment, it's a conversation I really need to have with the coaches and high performance manager," says the Melbourne Vixens defender.

"Whether there is room for me to be able to go back for periods of time, recognising that I've now got a mortgage to pay here and a job, I don't know."

Yesterday

Part one looked at the unreasonable demands being put on poorly paid players by their franchises, and looked at a day in the life of a fringe player.

- NZ Herald

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