Michael Burgess

Michael Burgess is the football and rugby league writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Netball: Auckland celebrate 100 years of success

Women play netball in the Auckland Domain around the early 1900s. Photo / NZNA
Women play netball in the Auckland Domain around the early 1900s. Photo / NZNA

In a year when the Mystics scaled their highest peak yet, it seems appropriate that Auckland Netball are celebrating a grand achievement of their own.

Next month, they will become the first netball association in New Zealand to mark a centenary.

While provincial netball is now overshadowed by the ANZ Championship, it is critical not to underestimate its importance at grassroots level.

"Auckland netball is the key breeding ground for us," says Mystics CEO Mark Cameron. "They are probably the best in the country at developing talent, with players from this region spread across the country."

Auckland sides regularly dominate the national age group competitions from under-15 to under-21 and Cameron nominates rising star Portia Woodman as a good example of someone who has come through the ranks. Maria Tutaia represented Auckland at under-15, 17 and 21 level, while Temepara George played for the under-19s.

"It is crucial we maintain that high level," says Cameron. "At the Mystics we should always be developing our own talent; we shouldn't be looking outside our region to fill our team or flying people in."

The Mystics were an amalgamation of three semi-professional franchises: the Auckland Diamonds, Northern Force and Counties Manukau Thames Valley Cometz. There were teething problems in the early days, but Cameron says that after four years any issues are "largely gone".

Auckland Netball registered as an incorporated society in 1908, and held their first official competitions in 1911.

Early matches were played in a variety of locations, including Auckland Normal School in Epsom and Carries Paddcock in Sandringham and were mainly contested between teachers and church-based teams.

There were also games on grass in the Auckland Domain, which must have been quite a spectacle, as nine-a-side teams competed in full-length dresses alongside rugby pitches.

The sport in those days was known as women's basketball (the name not changed to netball until 1970), and the rules had been adapted to help women deal with the limitations of their impractical garb, which also included hats and button-up shoes. The current seven-a-side game was introduced in 1959, as New Zealand finally decided to fall into step with the rest of the Commonwealth.

Sometimes in the early days, the goals would literally be baskets set on top of a pole; when a goal was scored, the umpire would pull on the attached string to tilt the basket and release the ball.

The sport in Auckland grew fast; by 1926, there were 39 affiliated teams, four years later, almost 90. In 1932, the city council filled in an old landfill tip to create the courts at Windmill Road in Glen Eden; Auckland Tennis were the official tenants but the netballers had the rights to use the courts during winter.

Games would be played whatever the weather, with players wearing a plastic overtunic to cover their woollen uniforms. In heavy rain, some players would even take to wearing a plastic cover over their heads, like the hood of a raincoat without its jacket.

Once granted its own base, the sport in the Queen City never looked back. Auckland hosted the world championships in 1975, where the Silver Ferns finished third behind Australia and England. Auckland were also national provincial champions on 14 occasions between 1975 and 1995, including a record 10 consecutive titles between 1986 and 1995.

The city has contributed 52 players to the Ferns, from names of the past such as Julie Coney, Yvonne Willering and Anna Rowberry to present day stars such as Tutaia and Temepara George; Cathrine Latu and Kayla Cullen should become the next tomorrow.

With 742 affiliated teams across the Auckland region, it is the largest netball centre in New Zealand, boasting nearly 20,000 members and participants.

Perhaps one of the biggest milestones has been the completion of the new Auckland netball centre in St Johns, which was officially opened in 2006. It features three indoor courts and 29 outdoor courts.

Long-time Auckland president Judy Russell has been heavily involved in planning the centennial celebrations, which include a dinner on Friday and other activities over that weekend, including an exhibition nine-a-side match played under traditional rules.

"It is a significant milestone and we hope to involve as many people as possible," says Russell.

"As a sport, netball is all about the people and once involved, they tend to stay involved for life."

- Herald on Sunday

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