Netball reinvention is the fast and the curious

Last updated 05:00 11/11/2012
Laura Langman
Fairfax NZ
CAPTAIN FANTASTIC: Laura Langman in action during the Fast5 tournament.

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Back when Queen Victoria was on the throne, one phrase often trotted out around the colonies and back in the mother country was that the sun never set on the British Empire.

OPINION: It was a pretty accurate statement back then.

From the Caribbean to New Zealand, the Royal Navy, a nice cup of tea and the British way of life ruled.

Their sport inherited those attitudes - be it football, rugby union, cricket, rugby league or netball. And over the years they have adapted to the modern world.

Though mostly played by former colonies, rugby and cricket are truly global sports, flush with money, truly modern beasts.

Internationally, league is hardly crossing the divides - but the sport itself is still strong; the NRL is one of most solid regional competitions you will find on the planet.

Then there's netball. Good old netball. Still dominated by the old nations, still largely unchanged over the years.

From the antiquated bibs to the fact its players - all incredible athletes - aren't afforded the international opportunities of their cricket, league and rugby playing cousins; it sometimes feels like a bit of an imperial relic.

The sport attempted its latest effort at reinvention this weekend in Auckland, under the banner of Fast5.

Netball's version of rugby sevens or Twenty20 cricket started life as FastNet in England in 2009. Quarters were halved in length; two-point shots were added as was a double-or-nothing "power-play" option.

Three tournaments were played, and while interesting in their make-up, failed to really take off with players or fans.

Surgery was needed, and was performed. Fast5 was created out of FastNet's corpse, with wing attack and defence positions shaved off, and a three-pointer scoring option added.

At Vector Arena this weekend, Netball New Zealand has attempted to add in the whole "entertainment" aspect that you'll see at other short-form creations of rugby and cricket.

From a poorly accented "Austin Powers" to mid-court Gangnam Style dance-offs, that fell cringe-worthily flat.

As did some of the videos flashed up on the big screen during quarter breaks.

How anyone can see the merit of displaying a demeaning clip of Jamaican goal-shoot Jhaniele Fowler spelling "RIDICUOLOUS" is beyond this correspondent.

Crowds, too, weren't flash, though this may be the result of Netball New Zealand's lack of promotion than the product itself.

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Maybe netball and silliness don't go together. And, really, when the product was as good as it was at Vector, why should it?

Though teams were slow to get their heads around the style of play without wing attack and defence positions available to boss the mid-court, it will happen.

Add in the "power-plays" and three-point shots, and the gaps that usually appear in international encounters closed right up.

This was immediately apparent on Friday night when Malawi, formerly "British Central Africa" in colonial terms, upset big guns Australia 33-15.

The plucky Africans would go on to push the Jamaicans 32-31, before toppling England, the FastNet defending champions, 27-23.

Any form of sport which reduces the gap between the big nations and the emerging ones, should be encouraged and promoted.

Back in Malawi, the national netball team are said to be celebrated throughout the five million-strong nation.

They are Malawi's All Blacks, their "Dream Team", and the two upset victories in Auckland will do much for the sport and its continued success at home and abroad.

Fast5 will never reach the giddy heights that sevens or Twenty20 have for rugby and cricket. Everyone knows that. But the game has merit, and should be the product netball uses to spread its word further internationally.

A future tournament in Malawi would be something pretty exotic, and unique to netball. Though Queen Victoria's gone, the sun need not set on netball. Embracing Fast5 could return some warmth.

- Sunday Star Times

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