Can netball challenge the established order of football and rugby in the Rhondda? It seems Rhondda Netball think so and the numbers of girls packed into clubs like Tonypandy would suggest the challenge is real. Graham Thomas went to find out.
It’s Wednesday evening in Tonypandy and the Sky has fallen in.
In fact, both of them are here – Sky James and Sky Williams have both arrived at Ysgol Nantgwyn for their weekly netball fix.
The girls are members of Tonypandy Netball Club, one of four clubs in the area run by Rhondda Netball, and together with 67 other girls, split into under-9s and under-12s, they are about to challenge the theory that only organised football or rugby – for boys – can get large numbers of youngsters into regular sporting activity.
Before head coach Lauren James brings the under-9s to order, the volume level is as impressive as the turnout. Maybe, more so.
“It can get a bit noisy,” says Lauren. “Screechy, really. One parent said it reminded them of going to a Britney Spears concert.
“When we first started, the U11s was one of the smaller groups. But we’ve developed relationships through the schools and that’s spread. The U9s have gone from 12 girls to a high of 39. For the U11s, we had 42 here the other day.”
Dividing her time between Sporting Marvels – the school-based Rhondda charity – and coaching Tonypandy, Lauren is spreading the message that netball can switch girls on to fun, friendships and fitness from an early age and can keep them hooked for life.
For some, this is the only regular physical activity they will do outside of school. For others, netball fits into a busy sporting uptake that might include swimming, football, cheerleading and dance.
“I actually came to this school as a pupil,” adds Lauren. “But I didn’t get introduced to playing netball until year nine, when I was 13.
“It was boys sport that was always the major thing around here. Girls sport tended to get pushed to the back. What’s great is that you see very young girls here start playing and developing their skills, but they also gain more confidence as people. It’s just awesome to see them grow.”
Both Sky Williams and Sky James have certainly got plenty to say in Tonypandy Netball Club’s favour.
Without trying to sound dramatic, 12-year-old Sky Williams says, matter of factly, “Coming here has changed my life. You get fed up sitting in the house all day, but coming here makes the day really fun.
“All my friends now come here, too. We all gave it a try and we all loved it. All the coaches are really nice. First we do warm ups, then we get into teams and do skills and games. I love it. People who don’t do sport are missing out.”
Sky plays either centre or wing attack and although she enjoys football and rugby, she puts netball top of the pile.
“I’ve watched the Celtic Dragons on TV and one day I want to be a coach.”
The enthusiasm is matched in the under-9s team who start an hour earlier. Eight-year-old Sky James – a pupil at Cwmlai Primary School in Tonyrefail – has been coming for a year, already, and plays goal defence.
Her nan usually brings her and when she’s not around, she jumps in with her friend.
“I like it here because the games are fun,” says Sky. “I also like practicing my passing. Swimming is good, too, but I get really excited about netball.”
Jasmine Williams, 11, is another of the under12s who mixes a bit of swimming and football with her netball but when she searches for clips on YouTube, it’s normally netball she’s after.
“I like looking at different clips and watching the way they move and pass,” she says.
“Passing is my favourite thing. I play centre and when I’m at home I practice my passing against the wall.”
Jasmine has already made the Rhondda representative team that train on a Monday night, which means the further support of parents, without whom Rhondda Netball would struggle.
They also rely on the assistance of teachers, such as Ysgol Nantgwyn’s John Davies and Nichola Lancaster, who ensure the club are able to use the school gym.
The link also means the school have girls joining at Year 7 who are ready to play netball.
Those familiarities are taken for granted when it comes to boys’ sport and the way they are immersed in both football and rugby, almost from the time they can run, catch and kick a ball.
But Rhondda Netball want to offer that same early adopters’ opportunity to girls – and that means catching them young and switching them on to sport at the same age as boys.
For a coach like Lauren, that is the aim – to change habits, expectations and the stereotypes of what it means to grow up in the Rhondda.
The sport has certainly been central for her. Last season, she snapped her knee ligaments which ruled her out of playing for her team, the Rhondda Rockets.
The coaching, she says, has given her a focus and she is keen to make an impact.
“Netball isn’t so well known as football, is it?” she says. “Go into any school at break time and the boys are playing football.
“For girls, netball has never held that central place. It would be amazing if one day I said to them who’s your favourite netballer and they could all give me the name of a top player with the Celtic Dragons.”
Perhaps that day won’t be long in coming.