By Rob Cole
Welsh Netball needs to pick itself up off the floor after failing to qualify for the 2019 World Cup in Liverpool and hit back at the Commonwealth Games in April.
The trip to the Gold Coast now looks like being a seminal tournament for the players and coaches. If they fail to come up with something better than their defeats to Scotland (52-40) and N.Ireland (57-42) at this weekend’s Netball Europe World Cup qualifying tournament, where they were comfortably beaten by both nations, they are in danger of tumbling down the world rankings.
A proud Welsh Netball CEO, Sarah Jones, was able to announce Wales had risen to a best ever seventh in the International Netball World Rankings in September last year. Prior to the weekend they were ninth ahead of their defeats to Scotland (11th) and N.Ireland (8th) in Perth.
Wales finished seventh at the 2015 Netball World Cup in Australia, their highest finish since 1991, and a one place improvement on their Commonwealth Games result in Glasgow the previous year. They are drawn in Pool B for the Gold Coast tournament in a few months time with New Zealand (World No 2), England (3), Malawi (6), Scotland (11) and Uganda (7).
There is no doubt that netball is thriving on the back of the creation of the Vitality Super League and the greater exposure brought about by Sky Sports backing of the exciting new product. The Celtic Dragons, which supplies the majority of the Welsh team, has been one of the core teams in the tournament and reached the play-offs in 2013.
But since they were beaten by Team Bath in the final in 2013 they have been running at a 20% win ratio. Last season they finished bottom of the table, despite two new franchises being introduced into the league.
Celtic Dragons Super League Results
Season Pos P W L GF GA Pts
2017 10/10 18 2 16 852 1097 6
2016 7/8 14 2 12 667 800 6
2015 7/8 14 2 12 564 821 6
2014 5/8 14 6 7 815 778 19
The Dragons start their new season at the National Sports Centre, Sophia Gardens, on 12 February when they host Benecos Mavericks, when they will have to face their star shooter from last year, Trinidad & Tobago star Kalifa McCollin. Like Chelsea Lewis (Bath) and Georgia Rowe (Northumbria) before her, she has moved on at a time when she was needed most by the Dragons.
The upsurge in interest, and on-going professionalism of netball, has presented as many difficulties as it had opportunities to teams like the Dragons. Their hand-to-mouth existence means they don’t have the pulling power of the other teams and, despite the best fans in the league, cannot generate the kind of cash needed to make the much needed change from an amateur to semi-pro or fully professional sport.
Unless they can find a way to bridge that gap – and both the Welsh national team and Dragons are run and coached by the same group – the downward spiral in results will simply continue. You can’t fault them for effort, but they are now being judged by different standards in an increasingly demanding professional sporting environment.
A change in coach from Trish Wilcox seems inevitable at the end of the Commonwealth Games and the new Super League season. New blood needs to be found for both the international and Dragons team and perhaps they should copy the Exiles programme being used by the Welsh Rugby Union to capture talent from across the Severn Bridge.
In the end, though, the offering needs to be about more than playing for a country or a Super League team. The leading netballers are now starting to earn a living from their sport, have growing sporting profiles and want to be playing for winning teams.
It is going to be agony for the Welsh players sitting in the stands in Liverpool next year watching the best players in the world grabbing all the headlines. A successful Commonwealth Games might ease some of that pain, but getting to grips with the core financial, recruitment and coaching issues will do more than anything to find a way to haul Welsh Netball off the canvas and get it back in the fight on all fronts.