New Zealand’s first international match against Australia, soon to become an arch-rival, was played in Melbourne in 1938. New Zealand was the only country playing nine-a-side basketball, so the change to only seven players on court did not come easily to the New Zealanders – they lost the inaugural test 40–11.
But the New Zealanders impressed with their agility, two-handed passing and knack of jumping high to ‘mark’ (catch) the ball, much like players of Australian football. The same attributes were recognisable in the New Zealand style of netball in 2020.
If New Zealand was to become part of the burgeoning netball world, a universal set of rules had to be agreed. The first international rules were drawn up in 1957 and applied in New Zealand two years later. The most crucial change was making the game seven-a-side.
At this stage basketball was still a ladylike affair – it was frowned upon to oppose a shot at goal or contest a rebound. Married women were discouraged from playing the sport, with teams often disqualified if they were found to have ‘post-maritals’ in their line-up.
Not to be sneezed at
The 1960 national team was the first to play an international test series in the modern era of seven-a-side basketball. The coach of that side, Dixie Cockerton, wasn’t entirely unhappy to see the end of the nine-a-side game. ‘Back then you had five seconds to shoot, and everyone around you had to stand perfectly still. My worst experience was sneezing at that moment.’1
1963 world tournament
Standardised rules opened the door for the first basketball world tournament, played in England in 1963. The New Zealand players faced an arduous five-week ship passage as their build-up, training on deck every day and losing balls overboard.
The New Zealand team, which included future netball matriarch Lois Muir, finished runners-up at the tournament. They lost their final game to Australia by one goal – setting the scene for future intense trans-Tasman encounters.
A new name
It was not until 1970 that the sport became officially known as netball in New Zealand. Referees became known as umpires.
By then, the game had moved from grass to asphalt outdoor courts. It was played by school teams and competitive club sides, and housewives and mothers participated in social mid-week fixtures, bringing their children to the courts. In 1976 there were more than 6,000 senior teams and 2,800 primary-school teams in New Zealand.
The game itself was becoming more physical. Although it was deemed a non-contact sport, players began moving the ball through court more quickly and contesting the ball with greater ferocity. The rules have been constantly fine-tuned to adjust to the more athletic style of netball.