By Erin Longney
At 1:30am on the day that school went back for Term 3, I was not asleep as most others would be in the early hours of a Monday morning. I was wide awake, watching Australia take on New Zealand in the Grand Final of the Netball World Cup. Left devastated by the Diamonds’ one goal loss to the Silver Ferns, I barely slept for the rest of the night.
Days after the last siren blew to signal the end of the Grand Final, I couldn’t stop thinking about the World Cup. But it wasn’t just the Diamonds’ loss that plagued my thoughts. The Australian Diamonds played a total of eight games across the ten days that the World Cup ran for. Eight games in ten days. The lack of time for rest and recovery for all athletes at the World Cup shocked me, and left me wondering why the World Cup only went for ten days in the first place. We’re talking about the pinnacle event in the netball world, and when it was over, I felt as though it had only just started.
When Australia’s elite netball league – Suncorp Super Netball – resumed, the physical and mental exhaustion felt by the World Cup players became clear. There was little rest for those SSN athletes who took part in the World Cup, who were back playing with their Super Netball teams just days after the World Cup Final.
New South Wales Swifts internationals Helen Housby, Sarah Klau, Paige Hadley, Nat Haythornthaite and Sam Wallace were flown straight out of England into Perth for their match against the West Coast Fever, as ex-Australian Diamond Sharni Layton put it, “continuing their lives out of a suitcase”. A total of 31 Super Netball athletes participated in the World Cup, all of whom were expected to transition immediately back into SSN after an intensely demanding World Cup fixture.
Physical exhaustion was just one part of the problem, with the mental strain placed on World Cup athletes another fundamental issue with netball’s non-stop post-World Cup schedule. The Diamond’s World Cup Final one-goal loss was reminiscent of the result of the Commonwealth Games Final, in which they lost to the England Roses by the same one goal margin. When Super Netball returned, it seemed as though the World Cup campaign had taken it’s emotional toll on some of the players. One of the biggest talking points of Round 10 of SSN was the tense exchange between Collingwood Magpies and Australian Diamonds wing attack Kelsey Browne and Magpies Head Coach Rob Wright. During a time-out in the Magpies’ clash against the GIANTS, Wright gave Browne feedback about her performance, to which Browne requested some positives. He responded by saying “How about doing some? Because to me at the moment you’re not. I can’t give you a positive when you’re not doing it.”
The exchange was the subject of much controversy – however, it was not Wright’s terse reply that left me confused. For me, the bigger question was why it had happened in the first place. Was it the emotional strain of the demanding World Cup schedule that had prompted her request for positives? Browne had just come off the back of a heart-wrenching one goal defeat at the World Cup, only to be thrown straight back into a match that is arguably as high in intensity as any international test. Perhaps she wouldn’t have felt the need for positive reinforcement had Super Netball returned at a later date to ensure adequate athlete rest and recovery time.
I had many questions, and I wanted answers. So, I directly messaged Liz Ellis, ex-Australian Diamonds captain turned commentator, and the most capped Australian netballer in history. A few days later, she emailed me a reply, and her response is a testament to just how much netball knowledge and valuable insight she has into the game.
Some of the main questions I asked her included:
· How did you feel about the length of the World Cup and the amount of games played in such a short period of time?
· Is there room for improvement in terms of extending the World Cup so that there is more rest and recovery time for athletes?
· Is this something that needs to be addressed by women’s sport as a whole, given other short time spans of tournaments in other women’s sporting events?
· Do you feel like the World Cup affected Suncorp Super Netball?
· What can be done in the future to prevent this from happening again?
Here is what she responded with:
As much as I would like the World Cup to be a longer tournament so as to avoid the need to play multiple games in a short time there are a couple of things to consider. Firstly, netball is not a wealthy sport, so any extension of time has a huge flow-on effect to the sport’s ability to stage a World Cup. Things like venue availability, broadcast costs and workforce wages come into play when planning the length of a World Cup.
Secondly, and most importantly, most of the players who compete are amateurs, so to ask them to take more time off work at a greater cost is simply not doable. If you make the World Cup longer you run the risk that it isn’t the best players from second tier nations like Zimbabwe and Northern Ireland but rather the wealthiest.
You have correctly identified that it is an issue that faces many women’s sports, and it’s something that can be addressed as the sports themselves become more profitable.
I do think that the World Cup has greatly affected SSN and SSN athletes.
Frankly they are exhausted both physically and mentally. I think the SSN must avoid a situation like this in future by ensuring that the SSN season is done well before international tournaments. They must also use their clout as the biggest employer of the world best players to influence when the tournament is held.
Her response not only answered my existing questions but brought to light many aspects of the problem that I hadn’t even thought about before. The point about the feasibility of the World Cup running for longer is extremely valid, and perhaps this is the bigger issue in itself. Netball is on the rise, and I hope that as it continues to expand, more can be done to ensure that athlete welfare is always the highest priority.