The world of netball
Over 20 million people play netball throughout the world, in more than 80 countries. The sport’s strength comes from Commonwealth nations, but it is also growing in Zimbabwe, Taiwan and the United States.
The top four nations are traditionally New Zealand, Australia, England and Jamaica. Trans-Tasman rivalry between the Australian Diamonds and the Silver Ferns – the teams have often been separated by only one goal after 60 minutes – has also heightened interest in international clashes.
From long skirts to lycra
The game was first played in floor-length skirts and button-up shoes, which hindered movement. Soon, the uniform became black woollen gym frocks, white long-sleeved shirts, a tie, black woollen stockings and sandshoes. In 1967 the New Zealand Basketball Association decreed gym skirts could be shortened by 2 inches (5 centimetres), provided the players wore black tights. By 1975 the Silver Ferns sported shorter pleated skirts and short-sleeved shirts with white sports shoes, and lycra appeared at the 1999 world championships. In 2012 the team wore a one-piece sleeveless black and silver dress made from a merino–polyester blend, designed for comfort, movement and temperature balance.
The pinnacle of netball worldwide is the World Championships (rebranded in 2015 as the Netball World Cup), played every four years. Since the competition began in 1963, New Zealand and Australia have dominated.
New Zealand has won the world title four times – first in Perth in 1967 when the side was unbeaten throughout the tournament. In 1979 New Zealand shared the world crown with Australia and Trinidad and Tobago, in a three-way tie (finals were not played until 1991).
In the last world championships held outdoors, in Glasgow in 1987, New Zealand was unstoppable – no team came within 10 goals of them. It would be 16 years before the Silver Ferns again tasted victory at a world tournament, in Jamaica in 2003 – and another 16 years before they repeated the achievement, in England in 2019.
In 1963, 1991, 1999 and 2011 New Zealand was denied the world title by just one goal – always by Australia.
Netball was first played as a Commonwealth Games sport in 1998. As a core sport it must be included in the programme every four years.
From 1998 to 2014 the gold medals were shared between New Zealand and Australia. The Silver Ferns won back-to-back titles in 2006 and 2010, with the latter final decided in extended extra time, 66–64. In 2014 they came second to Australia and in 2018 they could manage only fourth, with England beating Australia for gold.
The most recent addition to netball’s international calendar is the Fast5 Netball World Series. Created as netball’s equivalent to rugby sevens, the annual tournament – first played in 2012 – features the top six netball nations playing with an innovative set of rules, designed to arouse new interest in the game.
Fast5 is shorter and faster, with goals shot from outside the shooting circle awarded three points. An additional semicircle marked inside the goal circle allows goals worth one and two points. Each team chooses one quarter as a ‘power-play’ period during which any goals they score are doubled in value.
The number of players in each side is reduced to five, with the wing attack and wing defence positions removed.
Fast5 evolved from the FastNet concept introduced in 2009. New Zealand won the first two FastNet world titles, represented in the tournament by the FastNet Ferns – a mix of Silver Fern internationals and promising young players. When England wrested the world-series crown from the Ferns in 2011 it was the first time in 32 years an international netball title had not been won by an Australasian nation. New Zealand won the four subsequent series.
World Youth Championship
Every four years, the World Youth Championship pits the world’s best under-21 netballers against each other. Since the tournament began in 1988, New Zealand has won the title four times – in 1992, 2005, 2013 and 2017.