Back to school for a difficult lesson
NET GAIN: On court with netball players from various year groups in Ysgol Dewi Sant. PICTURE: Bill Carne.
A NON-contact game where girls dart around for a few minutes throwing a ball to each another - how hard can it be?
A chauvinist and naive statement, but unfortunately one which myself and many other like-minded male friends could relate to in school – when we ignorantly viewed netball as an inferior female sport.
So there was no shortage of irony when such ignorance came back to haunt me last week – as I returned to Ysgol Dewi Sant of my twelfth Commonwealth Games challenge, writes Fraser Watson.
Of course, without trying to sound like a resentful grandfather, things have changed since I was a boy.
Whereas in my school days both netball and basketball were played on the yard, amidst mass chippings and inclement weather, the school now boasts indoor courts via the St Davids Leisure Centre.
“It’s made a big difference,” said PE teacher Rachael Thomas, who has been involved in the sport for 24 years.
“In the past we have had to travel to play games as we could never guarantee the weather would be suitable for outdoor matches.
“But now we can fulfil home fixtures and the girls are playing week in week out.
“Also, you tend to have a lot more people willing to train and take part when you have indoor facilities.”
And the extra interest has certainly paid dividends, as earlier this year the school embarked on a sports tour to Dubai, where the under-18 side played a series of matches against high calibre opposition.
“Our Sport Pembrokeshire Ambassadors have been doing work in the local primary schools and we’ve also been indebted to coach Kay Reynolds who runs clubs for junior players in the area," said Rachael.
“It makes it so much easier for us when we have pupils who can already identify with the game.”
Indeed, the profile of the sport as a whole as vastly improved in recent years, especially in Wales following the nation’s participation in the 2011 World Championships in Sydney.
And Rachael said the extra coverage has helped the game locally.
“Netball is definitely now more accessible than it was in Pembrokeshire.
“And there are more girls from the county going on to play at a higher level.”
Indeed, as well as a vibrant school scene, the county accommodates a Pembrokeshire Social League for senior players, while clubs can also enter the highly competitive South Wales League.
And Rachael added the Commonwealth Games will only help promote the sport: “It will have a massive impact.
“The television coverage, and seeing teams competing for medals, will help gives youngsters something to aspire to.”
Of course, like many sports, netball has to fight against the tide of a perceived amateur or semi-professional status.
A high profile example of this came about last year, when renowned England player Eboni Beckford-Chambers moved to Australia to play for West Coast Fever. She publicly cited the fact that the UK’s top flight Superleague, comprising of eight franchises in England and Wales, didn’t pay players.
“Unfortunately netball can be seen as a sport that girls cannot make a career out of,” said Rachael.
“So it’s important the game is promoted in the right way and that youngsters have access to good coaching and elite squads.”
Before my own experience got underway, I indulged in a quick re-cap of the rules, seeing as my only previous on court experience came in a charity match with fancy dress and lenient referees.
What was noticeable was how Rachael was able to take a back seat in the warm up, overseen by West Wales under-16 player Lucy Thomas, and one of the school’s Gold Ambassadors for sport, Alice Perry.
Together with 5x60 officer Amanda John, the pair are just two pupils who regularly assist with coaching, content to take on the added responsibility.
And the warm up itself was no walk in the park, as youngsters from various year groups darted around the hall with the usual exuberance of youth.
A series of passing and movement drills then brought home the pace at which the game is played – and suddenly the three second time frame in which you are allowed to hold the ball appeared like a millisecond.
Also on hand was fitness instructor Charlotte Gardham, a member of the Milford Haven squad that captured the Division Two South Wales title in 2013.
“For netball you need speed, agility and explosive power,” she told me.
“Top players do a lot of step sprinting and work in the gym.
“And the game can be physical than people realise. Players often fly into each other trying to intercept or block a pass.”
That concept became quite clear to me after we were divided into two separate teams for a match.
Starting as a goal attack, I was frequently found guilty of ‘ball watching’ early on as I concentrated on staying within my designated zone.
A move to the centre position, where I was allowed to venture anywhere on the court except for the two goal areas, paid brief dividends before I was given a harsh lesson in keeping possession.
Re-starting the game after conceding a goal to the opposition, I threw a sloppy pass to a team mate. Within moments, the ball had been intercepted, transferred into our area, and the opposition goal shooter had scored.
I had barely blinked in between.
Indeed, I realised the game was like few other for movement off the ball – with players constantly trying to find space and provide options.
Perhaps for Rachael’s amusement, I was then moved to goal keeper, where my weak attempts at raising my hands had little effect on the tall goal shooter against me.
I was at least afforded a late move back to centre, but wasn’t able to prevent my side going down to a narrow, yet enjoyable, 6-5 defeat.
But my experience ran far deeper than the final score line. Breathless, it hit me that netball had been a game I had long under estimated, a game where fitness and skill is paramount, and a game where mistakes are punished in an instant.
And now a game which I readily admit, I was once ignorant to lament.
Bill Carne' verdict:
Netball is sometimes wrongly thought of as a soft game but as Fraser and I entered Ysgol Dewi Sant we knew this session was about to be fast, furious and highly competitive.
For Fraser it was like going home because he went to school there but the sports centre wasn’t there in those days and the netball team are certainly glad of its existence because it means they can play home games, where previously all their matches were played away.
We were met by Rachael Thomas, the school’s PE teacher and a fierce competitor herself, with a fervent belief in the school’s values. I had previously chatted to head teacher David Haynes, a useful cricketer and a natural motivator who had encouraged us to visit after a previous trip to another netball venue had fallen through.
It was arranged at short notice because of holidays and exams but when we turned up there was a smashing turn out of participants, and the warm-up session was held by Lucy Thomas, who has played at West Wales level.
These exercises were just up Fraser’s street because they involved speed, twisting and turning, and good footwork, all vital in netball. He relished them, as he did when they split into smaller groups and ball skills were introduced that involved catching cleanly and speedily releasing the ball.
He was also given a quick lesson from Rachael about the rules. She told him about where different positions could go on court, speed of passing and staying static to make passes – things that had Fraser in a lather to start, but he soon learned!
He started out as goal attack, but then revelled in the centre position which allowed him to move freely around court. He then moved to goalkeeper, which meant he was under pressure marking a taller goal shooter whilst staying in the defensive circle – before a switch back to centre.
After the session, we both agreed it was an eye-opening experience because netball is already played by some senior boys in school and would be good for rugby players looking to polish their handling skills and movement off the ball.
It was a pleasure to meet up with Rachel Thomas and Amanda John, also heavily involved in sport at St Davids School - and I believe Fraser learned something different from this latest challenge in his own back yard!
Tune into this week’s Radio Pembrokeshire Friday Night Sports Show, between 6-8pm, to hear Bill Carne speak to Fraser about his netball experience, and to Rachael and pupils in Ysgol Dewi Sant about the sport.
For more on netball in Pembrokeshire, visit the Sport Pembrokeshire Facebook page or www.pembrokeshire.gov.uk/sport.
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