Action from Tonypandy Community School Year 7. Pic: Influential Photography.

The Rhondda Dream Is Forming Again . . . Only This Time It’s Netball


Rugby, football and boxing are the sports synonymous with the Rhondda Valley, but netball’s progress has often been denied through lack of opportunity. Not any more. Graham Thomas reports on a rousing Rhondda success story.

The Celtic Dragons may have had their fires doused after another season of struggle in the Vitality Netball Superleague, but something is stirring in the sport at Welsh grass roots level.

Nestled high in the Rhondda Valley at Gelli is the beating heart of Rhondda Netball where mass participation has become a crusade and the long-term vision has echoes of a previous effort to re-shape the sporting landscape.

More than 20 years ago, “The Dream” was the marketing tag line for the Treorchy Zebras and their ambition to turn a small Valleys rugby club into an elite force, taking on the best and proudly representing a wider Valleys area.

That journey was successful enough to spark a TV series, but Rhondda Netball is a slower burner, building playing numbers among girls in an area where sporting opportunities are limited, before creating a high-performance team who can act as positive role models.


The omens are promising. The Dragons may have finished bottom of the Superleague for the past two seasons, but Wales as a national team have had their moments in recent years and wider afield netball is an ascendant sport.

Live TV coverage on Sky Sports has fuelled popularity as well as helped close the gap in standards between UK teams and the powerhouses of Australia and New Zealand. In Wales, the number of affiliated clubs has grown by 20% in the past four years.

Rhondda Netball squads: Pic: Influential Photography.

Rhondda Netball are riding the wave, with twin aims of promoting health and fitness through participation as well as redressing gender inequality.

In under two years they have developed and overseen school leagues that are now open to every secondary school in Rhondda Cynon Taf, created four local clubs – the Porth Pythons, the Ferndale Ferns, the Tonypandy Panthers and the Treorchy Phoenixes – and have managed an average weekly out-of-schools participation rate of around 500 girls and women.

They also run several senior teams and are about to launch the RCT Rockets who will compete in the A470 League. This will coincide with the addition of their Rhondda Rascals programme for five to seven-year-olds, and a “back to netball” initiative that encourages women of all ages to rediscover the sport they may have left behind when they discarded their old school uniform.

It means it’s not uncommon for three generations of women from the same family to now be playing netball in the same local venue in the same week.

Lawrie Davies, Rhondda Netball’s Founder and Managing Director, says: “You’d be hard pressed to find better female participation statistics anywhere in the UK and this is made all the more impressive when you consider the geography of the Rhondda and the challenges faced as a result of the deprivation in the Valleys.

“It was about making a difference in the Rhondda and giving its girls the same sporting opportunities that boys have enjoyed for many years.

Pic: Influential Photography.

“Getting the right people in place has been crucial, particularly our Operations Manager, Jody Barnes, and Jessica Sutton, our Development Coordinator, plus all our awesome coaches and other volunteers.

“But we also needed finance to make Jody’s role a full-time role, and we needed the Headteachers of Rhondda’s secondary schools to support the Valleys’ females in a similar way to how they’ve supported male sports provision. It seemed impossible in many respects, but we knew that with the right strategy and motivation we’d find success.”

Lawrie is the son of Phil Davies, the pioneering marketeer, influencer, and general mover and shaker behind Treorchy’s rise up the rugby ladder back in the 1990s; the man who brought us the unforgettable Zak the Zebra TV adverts at a time when the WRU were still getting their heads around how to spell professionalism, never mind deliver it.

As well as inheriting his father’s energy, Lawrie also has his savviness, which means he not only recognised the need for funding to make Rhondda Netball viable, but also had the means to go out and do the deals. As Don King would tell it, you can talk the talk, but you need to walk the walk, also.


Rhondda Netball’s main sponsor are Leekes, the seven-store retailer and owner of the Vale Hotel Resort, the well-appointed home to the Wales rugby team and training base for both Cardiff City and the Cardiff Blues.

Leekes also happen to have begun life in the Rhondda in 1897 and current chairman Gerald Leeke, a sports fanatic, who has previously dipped into his pocket to back Welsh squash, was once a funder of Valleys rugby.

Company Managing Director Emma Leeke believes Rhondda Netball is an obvious fit.

Ferndale Community School vs YG Cwm Rhondda – Year 9 final. Pic: Influential Photography.

“They take a similar approach to the development of netball to the one my father has to business,” she says. “Don’t tell me I can’t. I believe I can through blood, sweat, grit and determination.

“They wanted to do something in the region to support women’s sport, in particular younger girls and what could become a lifetime of sporting activity.

“That ticked quite a lot of boxes for us as it was based in the heartlands of the Valleys, and it was around women’s sport which was a little bit different.

“One of the amazing things is that it’s more than just encouraging girls to exercise. They run a programme around, ‘if you can dream it, you can achieve it.’ It was about aspiration, which was something that caught my father’s eye and drew his attention.

Rhondda Netball Seniors. Pic: Influential Photography.

“He has achieved a lot and the family have been lucky enough to achieve a lot through dreaming and then having the courage of your convictions to go out and fulfil those dreams.

“My father is aware that sometimes people do feel limited by their circumstances, so he was keen to get involved.

“They do brilliant work and so we were very happy to support it.”

School may be out for the summer at present, but don’t be surprised to spot a keen young five-year-old Rhondda Rascal chucking a ball through a hoop in a back garden, in readiness for September’s first register call.

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