Netball World Cup: challengers close gap on Australia and New Zealand

Photo: Netball World Cup/Facebook

With the sporting world’s attention on another major women’s sports event 7,000 miles away in Australia and New Zealand, the Netball World Cup has – until now – been mostly overlooked.

So much so, news that Vitality dropped out from its title sponsor role “following negotiations” just two weeks before the start came and went with little noise. Fortunately for the 10-day tournament, which will tread new ground as the first to be held in Africa, the damage done by the health insurer’s departure has been minimal with the South African telecommunications giant Telkom and retailer Spar agreeing to fill the void. Duct tape on kits and equipment will be the only reminder of Vitality’s fleeting commitment to the event.

The Guardian reports that sponsorship headaches and relative quiet aside, there will be much for netball to celebrate when the World Cup begins. South Africa taking on the hosting job comes as a fitting tribute to Africa’s wider growth in the sport. At the last edition of the World Cup in Liverpool, the four teams from the continent competing finished in the top eight, underlining its transition from an emerging force to an established one.

That theme of countries beyond Australia and New Zealand succeeding will be even more pronounced in the 2023 edition. Though history points to the Diamonds and Silver Ferns, who between them have won every World Cup title bar the one they share with Trinidad and Tobago from 1979 when the tournament was staged as a round-robin, the assumption that they will finish first and second is beginning to shed.

In 2018 at the Commonwealth Games, England’s Roses rocked Australia when they beat them on the Gold Coast, but more recently it is Jamaica whose stock has been rising. Buoyed by shooter Jhaniele Fowler and defender Shamera Sterling, the Sunshine Girls unleashed pandemonium at last summer’s Commonwealths in Birmingham after beating Australia and New Zealand to secure a spot in their first major final.

Despite then falling to the Diamonds in the battle for gold, the message from the Jamaicans was clear: we’ll be back. Like Jamaica, England and South Africa could also upset the Antipodeans. The Roses are hungry to repair their brand after leaving Birmingham empty-handed, while the Proteas have the force of a nation behind them.

The general mood may be that 11-time winners Australia and the reigning champions, New Zealand, are favourites owing to their pedigree, but still this World Cup promises to be the most competitive yet.

Going bib-to-bib with the world’s best is only one half of the challenge awaiting the teams converging on Cape Town. The tournament’s brutal schedule, which will require countries to play eight games in 10 days, is another.

The 16 qualified countries have been divided into four groups and will begin with three days of round-robin matches. After those games the top three teams from Pool A and B will form Pool F, while the top three from Pool C and D will form Pool G. The bottom four teams will move to make up Pool E and willcompete for 13th and 16th.

From day four onwards those in Pools F and G will play the teams they have not yet faced while carrying forward their previous matches. After those matches are done, the top two teams will qualify for the semi-finals, with the winners progressing to the final. The remaining teams, meanwhile, will enter the battle for classification. It’s a tournament that will require brains, brawn and guile; an apt test to determine a world champion.