Will the gap in Netball between England and Australia get too big to repair?

April 2018 was the first time since netball was introduced to the Commonwealth Games in 1988, that the final did not consist of Australia and New Zealand.

Instead, England took the place of New Zealand in the final and beat the world number ones, Australia, 52-51.

This set the ball rolling for the rapid growth of netball in England, not only on the International stage but at National level in the Netball Superleague.

In recent years the Superleague has grown from strength to strength in its battle to catch up with the Australian Suncorp Superleague and become the best netball league in the world.

The English Superleague’s Season Opener this year was the most successful yet, with a sell-out crowd of 9,000.

Weekly netball participation in England also increased by 130,000 in the weeks following the commonwealth gold. But, all of these positive figures could now be reversed.

Last week, the worst news hit the netball community: The Superleague 2020 was made null and void.

Initially, you are left feeling slightly numb at the thought of no more netball gracing your TV this year. You feel a sense of sorrow for the governing body, players and sponsors that have worked so hard to get the game to where it is now.

Then you remember, the Suncorp Super Netball League in Australia is due to start on the 1st August in the full 60-match league format.

The Suncorp Super League CEO, Chris Symington, put out a statement on Sunday confirming the start of the league, and saying:

“We are planning to play out a full home and away season, and we are confident that our start date gives us the best opportunity to do that.”

Suddenly, it becomes clear it is not just national league netball that is going to be affected by this unpredictable sudden halt, it is world netball too.

Australia are already ranked 1st in the International Netball Federation rankings, followed by New Zealand and England respectively.

With the Suncorp Super Netball league currently going ahead only a few months later than planned, and England international players including their captain, Natalie Haythornwaite, being given permission to fly back to play for their teams, the panic sets in that more may follow.

Maybe not this season, but if the Netball Superleague fails to come back stronger in 2021 due to lack of funding, then England could no longer be knocking on Australia’s door, competing to have the best national netball league and international team.

At the 2019 Netball World Cup in Liverpool, out of the 12 players named in the England squad half of them were playing their club netball in Australia.

Yes, that may make them better players, as they are arguably playing in the best netball league in the world, however, this isn’t going to help netball grow in England.

We need our players to be playing in our Superleague, to increase its profile and the funding going into the sport for the future.

The appeal to play netball in Australia and New Zealand is already high, due to sponsorship money and high revenues meaning their players earn considerably more than players at the top level in the game in England.

The return of the Suncorp Super League, before the English Netball Superleague, could only make things worse.

However, Surrey Storm player, director of netball and head coach, Mikki Austin, is adamant English netball will come back “even bigger and even better.”

She took to social media to share a video with her fans saying:

“Our netball community is an amazing thing, so when the 2021 season returns, and we will return, let's focus on making that the most amazing product it could possibly be,

“Let’s get behind our franchises and sell out venues across the board, let’s make sure that our broadcasting figures are the highest they have ever been.

“To any young athletes out there, do not lose motivation within this time, we're all in this together,”

Her words were just what every young netballer needed to hear, to know that their idols will still be playing netball on home soil next season.

There was also a glimmer of hope in the statement released by England Netball, that we might see some form of Superleague netball in the later stages of this year.

The CEO of England Netball, Fran Connolly, said:

“The start of the 2020 season was the most successful yet with record-breaking crowds joining us for the Season Opener in February.

“We don’t want to see that momentum dwindle away, but it’s key that we protect the longevity of all 10 VNSL (Vitality Netball Superleague) teams so that we can come back next season bigger and stronger than before,”

Before going on to say that they are now “working with the VNSL teams to investigate an autumn offer”, as well as planning for the return of the full league next year.

The “autumn offer” of the game is likely to be in the form of a “standalone short-form competition”, but before anything like that can happen leisure centres and private facilities must re-open so the players can train.

It is now important that Connolly and Austin, and other respected members of the netball community, continue to talk about the sport's future, to help keep the players on home soil, and keep everyone onside through what will be the longest pre-season period the players and fans have ever faced.

2021, needs to be the best yet.

This article was written exclusively for golear.co.uk