Dana Johannsen is the NZ Herald's chief sports reporter

Netball: Champs gave us Aussie insights but fell short of grand design

Tomorrow’s grand final showdown between the Queensland Firebirds and the NSW Swifts in Brisbane will be the last act of the ANZ Championship. From its lovestruck beginnings to its acrimonious split, Dana Johannsen has covered all nine seasons of the transtasman league. Here she pays tribute to the competition.
Jo Harten (left) of the Magic attempts a shot at goal while defended by Te Huinga Selby-Rickit and Jane Watson of the Steel. Photo / Dianne Manson
Jo Harten (left) of the Magic attempts a shot at goal while defended by Te Huinga Selby-Rickit and Jane Watson of the Steel. Photo / Dianne Manson

The marketers described it as "netball as you've never seen it" - and that wasn't just because all the games would be live on the telly for the first time.

The ANZ Championship promised to be ground-breaking, game-changing and a great leap forward for women's sport in this part of the world. And it was.

Some also enthused it would be like the NBA of netball. It wasn't.

The competition brought together two great netballing rivals with a shared goal in mind: to create a professional league that would attract players from around the world and advance the commercial standing of the sport.

Our top netball stars had long enjoyed a high profile in New Zealand, with the old domestic league flourishing under free-to-air coverage.

But outside of one or two big names, little was known of the top Australian players. The new league changed all that, introducing New Zealand fans to some of the big personalities in the sport.

There were lots of Caitlins and lots of Kims, and a Romelda, who whilst purportedly from Jamaica, sounded like a true blue Aussie shortly after arrival. That might be because Australians think it hilarious to mock anyone who doesn't talk like them. Strewth.

With more registered players in Victoria than New Zealand, Australia also boasted much stronger depth than their transtasman rivals.

The Magic had a cunning plan to counteract Australia's depth, however, stacking their team with what looked suspiciously like the Silver Ferns starting line-up.

We therefore reasoned they would surely have the inaugural ANZ Championship crown sewn up.

The Swifts had other ideas, and so kicked off nine seasons of playing second fiddle to the powerful Australian sides.

There was a brief reprieve in 2012, when the Magic broke through to claim the crown over the Melbourne Vixens by opting for the reverse psychology strategy: as their line-ups got weaker on paper, they got better on the court.

Aside from the Magic, who are the only side to have made every ANZ Championship final series, the competition was a difficult adjustment for the New Zealand sides. We know this because even after five seasons into the league Kiwi coaches were still saying "we just need to adjust".

It appears for a long time netball administrators expected that adjustment would happen through osmosis. It wasn't until the last couple of years that they recognised the shortcomings in New Zealand's high-performance systems were contributing to the gulf in depth between the two countries, and moved to introduce a feeder competition to underpin the ANZ Championship.

These moves came too late to improve NZ's lot in the transtasman league. The Magic's maiden title win in 2012 was the last time a New Zealand side featured in the grand final.

There has been the other odd high point - the Harrison Hoist, the Steel's unlikely final-season flurry, the Pulse's plaits.

If the competition was desperately unbalanced, the commercial arrangements were even more so.

Despite having an initial target of securing a paid broadcast deal within three seasons, Netball Australia have not been able to contribute a single dollar in broadcast revenue over the past nine years, while happily banking nearly $15 million from a Kiwi pay-per-view broadcaster over that time.

The ANZ Championship died of complications from Netball NZ's and Netball Australia's tenuous relationship. It is survived by 295 players and 28 coaches.

- NZ Herald

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