Momentum sees netball comes of age

Lynsey Gallagher is keeping her eye on the ball as Scotland aim for a top eight place at the Commonwealth Games in Australia. Photograph: Jeff Holmes
Lynsey Gallagher is keeping her eye on the ball as Scotland aim for a top eight place at the Commonwealth Games in Australia. Photograph: Jeff Holmes
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Something has happened to netball in this country in recent years – it has grown up. These days there is no accepted age limit for a sport once the preserve of schoolgirls.

Just as countless adults have chosen to embrace their youthful imagination through the books of Harry Potter or the heroes of the Twilight saga, thousands have decided to embrace their inner child when it comes sport as well.

While many spoke of the importance of legacy when Glasgow was chosen to host the 2014 Commonwealth Games, few worked as hard or as smartly as netball to ensure it was more than a glib line.

The ‘Bounce Back to Netball’ drive targeted those who had previously played the game but had found opportunities few and far between since they headed to secondary school. Then there was the emergence of the Sirens, Scotland’s first Superleague franchise. Both have been a success.

As a consequence, participation numbers have ballooned and, as Scotland head into next year’s Games in Gold Coast, Australia, they are already looking at how they can eat into the gap between themselves and the top nations even further and even quicker.

With less than eight months to go until Team Scotland begin their quest to win their biggest haul of medals at an overseas Games, netball was one of the first team sports to be included in the line-up, named alongside basketball and rugby sevens last week.

It will be only the second time that Scotland have included a netball side but Lynsey Gallagher believes the experience of performing in Glasgow will mean they head Down Under well prepared for the task.

“I’m really excited to be part of Team Scotland again,” she said. “2014 was such a great platform for our sport and we are delighted to be part of it again and to see where the journey goes.

“I think that even during our preparation into 2014 we were closing the gap then and we have come on leaps and bounds since then. We are looking to close that gap even more. There are lots of us who have worked together for a long time and the pathway is getting stronger and stronger. The coaches have worked tirelessly and we just need to keep rocking up to the gym and to training sessions and working as hard as we can.

“Even looking at the World Youth Championships in Botswana in July, we finished in eighth place so it is good to see that the youngsters are coming through as well and there is a solid pathway. They will be pushing for spots come April.”

It means that competition for places will be fierce. Since the arrival of New Zealander Gail Parata as national coach, the Scottish Thistles have become even more professional and confident that they can be more than bit part players on the world stage.

“In Australia, New Zealand and down in England, it is massive there and we are pushing to get there,” Gallagher added. “Since 2014 the sport has gone from strength to strength here but realistically we are looking at a top eight finish [at Gold Coast]. From now until April we will train as hard as we can. We have the Europeans coming up and we will want the best possible position there. We will be looking to nail combinations, there will be younger players coming in and we will be looking to cement our best combinations before we get to Australia.”

Growing the sport is important to Gallagher but so is the part all of the players accept as role models to all young girls. A recently qualified primary school teacher, the East Kilbride club player loves the fact that children are being granted more visible alternatives to reality TV stars and are encouraged to see sport in a positive light.

“The Sirens have been such a big thing and sometimes walking down the street people will say, ‘oh, she plays for the Sirens’ and it is nice to be a positive role model for young girls. It shows how being an athlete, there are so many things that come with that. You are healthy and fit and I like promoting a positive image for young girls, in fact all kids. 2014 was a big platform and since then we have shown how amazing the sport can be to keep you fit and healthy and help you develop social groups. I have made friends for life.”

Another Commonwealth Games gives Scotland the platform to build on that and shine an even brighter light on the sport.

“We have a health week [at school] and I was asked to speak to the kids. They told them it was an athlete coming in to speak to them and it turned out to just be Miss Gallagher! But it was me speaking about my experiences and how it could help them in all aspects of their life, making friends and with things like going for job interviews.

“They were interested to hear about the commitment and they might see that as a sacrifice but it was a way of showing them what could be achieved.

“It is a good way of showing them that anyone can do it.”