Netball Superleague: a sport shooting for the stars

Sport

There is no disputing the popularity of Netball in the UK. Over one million of us currently play the sport on at least a weekly basis and it is safe to say that most of the female population have at some point in their school careers donned their trainers and had a go. Why then, with such a high uptake, is Netball so under exposed, respected and funded? For someone such as my naive, younger self, who had never had the chance to watch or appreciate what the sport was really about, it was very easy to dismiss as an unimportant and marginal undertaking.

It didn’t take long to realise after sitting down to watch a televised broadcast of a match that my understanding of the sport was so overwhelmingly misguided. Despite continually struggling to come to terms with some of the more technical rules (more confusing than the offside rule will ever be to non-football fans), I have found myself absorbed into a captivating, expressive and totally complete sport.

‘I have found myself absorbed into a captivating, expressive and totally complete sport’

Atop the sport sits the Netball Superleague. Also known as the NSL, the competition, showcasing some of the greatest Netballing talent from across the world, features eight teams from all corners the UK. Each team plays fourteen home and away games with the top four in the league format progressing to a playoff stage to finally decide who will take the season’s title. With regular broadcasts on Sky Sports, sell-out crowds in the thousands and a growing presence in the media, the NSL is in many ways similar to its older and significantly more decadent cousin, Football’s Premier League.

Layla Guscoth: Oxford medical student and defender for Hertfordshire Mavericks was named player of the season in 2014
Layla Guscoth: Oxford medical student and defender for Hertfordshire Mavericks was named player of the season in 2014

Due to a lack of extensive funding, most of the home-grown talent is forced into balancing their netballing dreams with more practical commitments. Players are committed to a professional schedule of media work, gruelling weekly training and a packed schedule of matches for a Superleague team, a secondary club and oftentimes University or National team, whilst simultaneously undertaking undergraduate and graduate degrees or working full time jobs. This helps to provide countless relatable storylines from both on and off the court. This season’s Superleague promises to be the most intriguing and thrilling offering yet, with a number of scores to settle after a remarkably tight conclusion to 2014’s edition.

Surrey Storm, favourites for last season’s title after going unbeaten in the league phase, were no doubt thoroughly disappointed to lose by a single point in the final to Mancunian franchise Manchester Thunder. Player/Captain Tamsin Greenway’s outfit has strengthened its squad to entrench its position amongst the frontrunners once more. Constructed around a reliable and experienced core of England internationals Greenway, Dunn and Cookey, Storm have looked to strengthen across the court, poaching the trio of Austin, Huckle and former New Zealand youth international Borck from long-term rivals Hertfordshire Mavericks. Greenway will be satisfied with no less than another unbeaten run and a first title for the Surrey based franchise, however, the other front-runners have made important tweaks to ensure that the title race will remain open right down to the wire.

Last season’s champions and two time title winners Manchester Thunder will no doubt be gunning for a repeat of 2014’s spellbinding final in the Worcester Arena. Tracey Neville, (incidentally from the same illustrious sporting family as brothers Gary and Phil) has chosen to name a largely unchanged team, unsurprising considering the quality it displayed last season. Thunder’s only change comes in the form of Australian star Chelsea Pitman, a versatile player capable of being deployed in both attack and in the mid court and will add international quality to the team. If pre-season form is anything to go by, Thunder are showing no signs of slowing having convincingly beaten Yorkshire Jets in a friendly as well as coming out on top at the Mike Greenwood tournament. A repeat final would be no surprise.

Coach Sam Bird’s Herfordshire Mavericks remain largely unchanged, but have brought in a few new faces to try and improve on last season’s third place finish. Louisa Watson, a Mavericks veteran, two-times NSL champion and Commonwealth bronze medallist has been brought back in to bring experience in attack alongside the New Zealand International Miriama Selby-Rickit. With an exciting prospect in the form of Sophie Carter, making the transition from the youth squad, the additions to the squad featuring England superstar sisters Sasha and Kadeen Corbin and Oxford medical student and 2014 player of the season Layla Guscoth in defence, Mavericks certainly have the personnel to make things very difficult for their rivals. It will be interesting to see what youthful players such as attacker Sophie Hankin can bring to the table, having shown flashes of brilliant at points last season.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k5MfJFG-hcA&w=560&h=315]

Hertfordshire Mavericks will look to get the better of rivals Surrey Storm this season after a thriller in 2014.

Yorkshire Jets will be amongst those teams looking to make a vast improvement on last year’s team performance. Coach Anna Carter’s side finished a miserable 7th last season scoring just three wins. However, with the changes they have made, they should rightfully have ambitions for the playoffs. In Grenadian Lottysha Cato, a proven shooter for Celtic Dragons last season, the Jets have arguably the most powerful presence in the final third. In addition, Sally Butters, imported from Australia, has demonstrated exceptional form in training and is sure to be an exciting prospect throughout the season. Captained by Jets veteran Lauren Potter, the Leeds based outfit have named a very younthful squad featuring proven seventeen year old attacker Brie Grierson, one of the most exciting talents in the competition. It remains to be seen what young additions Megan Clark, Bea Skingsley and Lydia Walker can bring to the table, having impressed in their youth careers, they will no doubt be fighting for as much court time as possible to warrant first team selection.

The most exciting prospect for this year’s competition comes in the form of last year’s bottom placed side Loughborough Lightening. Having failed to score a single point in a dismal season last time around, the team have pushed to make significant changes across the board. Ex-Mavericks coach Karen Atkinson has been brought in and will set her targets very high following a successful season last year. Lightning have brought in some  international superstars, with South Africa captain Maryka Holtzhausen, possible the biggest surprise signing of all is joined by compatriot Phuzma Maweni in defence as well as Ugandan shooter Peace Proscovia who will bring some much needed height into the side. However, as well as making some huge additions, Atkinson has reiterated her belief in some of the squad’s players from last season. Some strong performances in the pre-season period make Loughborough a surprise bet for the playoffs.

It is always difficult to take five time title winners Team Bath out of the picture. Having won the most titles of any team in the Netball Superleague, Bath has the pedigree and experience to go all the way. A fourth placed finish last season will have been a disappointment for 2013 champions, and in response the team has signed its first overseas player in its history. Celtic Dragons, the competition’s Welsh representative and mid table regular, may struggle this season after the loss of key player Lottysha Cato in attack having moved to Yorkshire Jets. Similarly Team Northumbria, having finished sixth last season will hope to improve although with the high profile changes made by the front runners it seems unlikely that they will be able to reach the playoffs.

We thoroughly recommend that you tune in to the season’s televised opener tonight at 19.45 featuring a rematch of last year’s final between Manchester Thunder and Surrey Storm and see what the excitement is all about.

PHOTOS/SCRUMPIX