Netball’s not a tough sport? Players let game do talking in brutal riposte

If NRL coach Ricky Stuart has an hour to kill this week, he might like to catch a replay of Sunday’s Super Netball clash between the NSW Swifts and Melbourne Vixens.

The round three match, which saw the Swifts humble last year’s premiers 55-43 in front of 6,000 fans at Ken Rosewall Arena, was a physical, grinding affair in parts and epitomised the “toughness” that netball is known for.

The Canberra Raiders coach caused uproar last week after reportedly saying if he couldn’t have tough conversations with his players he “might as well coach netball”.

The implication was, of course, that netball coaches – and by extension players, of which there are more than one million in Australia – are not tough.

The response from the sport, dominated by women and girls, was initially led by former Australian Diamonds coach Lisa Alexander and captains Anne Sargeant and Liz Ellis. It was swift and stern, with Ellis calling on Stuart to stop making netball a euphemism for “not tough”.

“Whilst it was a throwaway line, actually it’s one of those things that needles you. It’s happened for years and years and years and I feel like it’s time now we say actually that’s a bit rubbish,” she said.

Clubs like the Swifts joined the chorus during the week, calling the comment “deeply disrespectful” and sarcastically suggesting the Sydney-based side would “just braid” the Vixens players’ hair when they met on Sunday, because “netball’s not a real sport”.

Individual players spoke out on social media and Vixens sponsor Puma posted an Instagram tile listing “condescending and outdated views on netball” as one trend to be left behind in 2021.

Ultimately the furore saw the game’s governing body, Netball Australia, take the unusual step of making a public statement. In it, interim chief executive Ron Steiner said no one sport had a monopoly on toughness.

“The hard work and sacrifice of every netball coach – from professional through to grassroots – provides a toughness that Stuart has insensitively failed to appreciate. We won’t walk past a comment that demonstrates a total misunderstanding and disrespect to the sport of netball and to its people,” the statement read.

Stuart did make an apology later in the week, including lines such as “I hope netball take it as good publicity” and “I’ve had some journalists ring me and we had a laugh about it.”

No one in netball was – or is – laughing. But what happened on court in Sydney on Sunday eclipsed any words on a page as a form of rebuttal.

During the match – the Swifts’ first home game in more than 600 days – Vixens goal keeper Kadie-Ann Dehaney returned to the court in the last quarter after writhing in pain in the goal circle after a clash with her opponent Sam Wallace in the third.

As she often does, Swifts midcourter Maddy Proud hit the deck several times, but bounced up, although she left the court with five minutes to play with what looked like a serious lower leg complaint. Meanwhile, Vixen Mwai Kumwenda threw herself, literally, at almost every contest, before also leaving the court with an injury.

Challenges in the air around the circle edge from Kate Eddy and Paige Hadley were consistently strong. Shooter Wallace finished with 48/48, including two super shots, under intense physical pressure from the Vixens’ defence line. “Tough as nails” is a phrase sprung to mind more than once.

There were fewer overall penalties paid in the game compared to some other matches this round, but it was the lowest scoring, indicating a tight tussle where every loose ball mattered.

It was a robust contest that the Swifts, now sitting second on the ladder with two wins and a loss, had to fight hard for, something that was not lost on their coach Briony Akle, who – coincidentally, or maybe not – used the word tough several times when responding to post-match questions about Stuart.

“Netballers are tough. It was a tough 60 minutes of netball and it took that to win the game,” Akle said.

Akle is said to be one of a number of Super Netball coaches who in Ellis’s words, are “really angry about this, because it actually casts a pretty poor aspersion”. “It’s having a shot at them, saying they’re not capable of having the tough conversations,” Ellis said.

That is what Stuart meant but, unlike 20 years ago when the majority would have sniggered along with him, the netball world – and the role models who inhabit it – has blown the whistle.