For most, netball was a sport introduced as a means of socialisation at University. Following years of high school sport and weekends spent playing cricket or avoiding a harrowing injury on the rugby field, attention turned to mixed netball as a means of keeping fit and, if you were lucky, getting the chance to speak to that person you were crushing on in your tutorial. But as anyone who has taken to the netball court can attest, as soon as that whistle blows and the game commences, competitive drive takes over and you quickly realise that netball is a sport that demands everything from its players. Fast-paced, aggressive and requiring immense agility and speed, it’s hard not to fall in love with the sport as you come away dripping with sweat just a few minutes in.
Despite the ever-growing popularity of men’s netball, it remains a largely female-dominated sport. When it comes to coverage, the Australian men’s netball team remain something of a novelty, rarely sighted and kept “behind closed doors.” Now, the 12 Aussies representing our nation in netball are set to see the tides change for the men’s game as they take part in a history-making trans-Tasman series that commences this week.
In what will be a first, the four-game Constellation Cup series between Australia and New Zealand’s female teams will feature two televised curtain-raisers between the men’s national sides. The first match will take place in Auckland on Wednesday and the third will be played at Melbourne’s John Cain Arena on October 19. The games will see the men play before the world champion Silver Ferns go up against the Commonwealth gold medal-winning Diamonds. Though the women will then play another Test in Tauranga on October 16 and on the Gold Coast on October 23, the men will play just a third standalone game in Auckland on October 14 to round-out their competition.
World Netball continues to only sanction women’s netball, with the men’s sides unable to wear the coat of arms on their uniforms. But thanks to an agreement between the women’s and men’s governing bodies on both sides of the Tasman, the landmark series has now become a reality for the men.
It presents an exciting opportunity for the men who have received great support already during their training, attending the Diamonds’ training camp at the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra, before both teams flew to New Zealand. As Australian captain Dylan Nexhip suggests, the opportunity to play a televised game is instrumental in not only shifting attitudes towards the sport in general, but also seeing greater participation rates amongst males, with the sport currently played by more than 116,000 men and boys here in Australia.
“A joint tour to this extent has never happened in the history of our sport so to say it’s super exciting is an understatement,” said Nexhip. “It’s huge, something many of us didn’t even dare dream about.”
Men have long been forced to play netball in small, self-funded leagues separate from women for decades. While there has been a shift of late, with state bodies introducing dedicated male pathways for boys – who have to leave the girls’ game aged 12 – and adding men’s divisions to senior state titles, the fact remains that the opportunities for men are still somewhat limited when it comes to the professional nature of netball, and Nexhip and his teammates will need to pay $3000-$5000 for the tour itself, despite Netball Australia’s support. Even so, the Diamonds and Ferns have often played top male sides in practice matches, often losing, since the early 2000s, as reported by The Guardian.
“There has been a lot of behind-closed-door stuff happen over the years, with the Diamonds and Super Netball teams, but this is our moment to be out there in our own right, after so much work, by so many people, over so many years. It’s a milestone and we want to show what we can do and hopefully inspire the next generation,” says Nexhip.
He added: “Regardless of your gender, you should never be told you can’t play a sport. There should be opportunity for everyone, no matter what sport it is, it’s that simple.”