Rugby, not netball, still our national sport

JOSEPH ROMANOS
Last updated 08:22 11/09/2012

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OPINION: N etball New Zealand chief executive Raelene Castle gets full marks for ambition with her expressed desire that netball be our national sport by 2020.

However, she's in for a disappointment.

Rugby is our national sport, as it has been since New Zealand first played international team sport in the 1880s and still will be in eight years.

There have been flickering moments when other sports looked to muscle their way in.

Football enjoyed a huge boost in the early 1980s when the All Whites qualified for the World Cup finals (and when rugby was suffering fallout from the 1981 Springboks tour).

That bubble soon burst. The national team doesn't do well consistently enough to be the shop window the sport needs.

Rugby league rode a wave of popularity during the era of coach Graham Lowe a few years after that but, despite blanket television coverage of the Australian National League more recently, it is far removed from being our national sport.

And netball?

It has enjoyed a privileged position for decades.

Sports-minded schoolgirls have generally headed for the netball courts, giving the sport a great platform.

Sponsors seeking involvement in women's sport chased netball vigorously. The media, acknowledging it needed some coverage of women's sport, ensured netball got a good run.

But things have changed.

Girls, and women, have other attractive sports choices now, as can be seen at the Olympics, where there are now virtually as many female as male competitors.

Mountain biking, triathlon, cycling and football are extremely popular women's sports in New Zealand and have loosened netball's hold on women's sport.

Castle and other national netball administrators would be doing well to hold netball's membership steady - the number of registered players has declined.

Netball is a terrific sport, much more impressive viewed live than on television. The 1987 New Zealand side that won the world title in Glasgow was one of the best New Zealand teams I've seen in any sport.

The 2002 and 2010 Commonwealth Games finals against Australia, which went into extra time and then into golden goal situations, were among the most exciting sports contests imaginable.

But to think netball could usurp rugby in the national consciousness is ridiculous.

One thing Castle might do is stop referring to her sport as a 'business'. It's a sport for 99.9 per cent of players and she shouldn't forget that.

Nevertheless, Castle should be admired for her progressive attitude, which contrasts with the thinking of netball administrators in the early 1980s.

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I recall the 1983 national annual meeting, when delegates railed against president Anne Taylor's call for sponsorship. They didn't want their game tainted.

Those days are gone.

Nevertheless, rugby dominates in every way. A really poor crowd for a representative rugby match in New Zealand is a boom crowd for almost any other sports fixture. Television audiences for rugby remain high and are matched only occasionally by other sports - the All Whites v Bahrain World Cup qualifier, David Tua v Lennox Lewis, the Olympics.

Rugby sports books sell exceedingly well. Other sports struggle. Rugby dominates sports radio talkback.

I've seen nothing from netball to change that situation, despite the power of positive thought coming from Castle and her cohorts.

Joseph Romanos is a Wellington sports writer and broadcaster.

- Taranaki Daily News

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