I absolutely love netball. It is such a fabulous sport to watch. I wish I had played. Movement off the ball, creativity with it, the use of space – netball and rugby are more similar than you may think.
The skill level and sheer athleticism in the teams is a joy to watch. Serena Guthrie and Jade Clarke are the envy of all; great leaders, massive engines, street fighters, comfortable with any letters on their back, happy to make the big play, yet just as happy to be the water carrier and a support act in the big play – whatever it takes for England to win.
Why do I love netball so much? It requires so much work off the ball to try to find an inch of space. As a ball holder or carrier – no running allowed when in possession in netball – you are left with no options if your team-mates stand still. You are always passing to space; if you pass to a static team-mate you will get picked off. You have to constantly offer yourself as an option, running clever lines without the ball to create space for your team-mates. It is absolutely fascinating.
But most impressive of all is the speed of ball transfer. Lightning quick in and out of the hands, forcing defenders to chase shadows. It is everything I want to see in rugby teams.
On Sunday, I switched between England’s win over New Zealand and the Champions Cup and saw Bordeaux with giant, hairy 120kg men playing like a netball team. What a joy.
The diminutive Matthieu Jalibert brought to life an idea that has lived with me for 35 years and it had me smiling from ear to ear.
It brought to life the beauty of rugby played in the heavens and can be traced back to the legendary Wallaby Mark Ella. What a glorious player he was. An ability of the great players is to move defences around, creating space for others, offering themselves as an option and to move the ball on quickly without being touched.
When the defenders had exhausted themselves or had simply run out of bodies, Mark would find himself on the end of another pass and walk over. It is everything rugby should be.
Variations on a theme
Ball movement, space, off the ball running; it’s also why I love netball. While there are parameters to where a player can go, it embodies that spirit to make the game simple, the opponents exhausted, by speed of thought and deed.
And so back to Jalibert who touched the ball three times in nine seconds to create a mesmeric try for Cameron Woki, his giant back-row forward. Scarlets had made an error, the ball was loose, and the French are as good as anyone at hurting you. No stuffing of the ball up jumpers in the south of France if they sense space.
It was everything I had seen in the netball; sense an opportunity, move the ball, recycle yourself, change your foot speed, be patient, communicate, and be really excited about scoring goals and tries.
Sport may be different but it’s all the same. Watch Manchester City, and what they did to Chelsea at the weekend, and you see the same thing with a different shaped ball. It’s no different. Pep Guardiola has instilled in his team the desire to work for each other, all the time. Don’t let your feet grow roots, ever. At their best, whoever you support, they are a joy to watch, from front to back, masterclass in contact evasion and space manipulation.
The crossover parallels are so simple for me to see. Jade Clarke would be a fabulous fly-half. Matthieu Jalibert would be a special false nine, and Bernardo Silva would be out of this world as a netball centre. Great sportsmen and women will always adapt to the laws and rules of a particular sport, but they all know that it is simply variations on a theme.