England Nets U21 Women begin their World Indoor Netball Championships campaign in South Africa on Sunday morning.
The upcoming tournament represents the pinnacle of the sport and, for a lot of these young stars, it is an opportunity to announce themselves on the world stage.
U21 Women are raring to go
The U21 Women squad is packed with quality. Many of the team play for Vitality Netball Superleague franchises and all are well-versed in Nets, a variation of traditional netball played within an enclosed netted area.
This will be the first major tournament for the majority of Shelley Copland’s side but they will be led onto court by captain Victoria Lavender, who has had prior experience of the World Indoor Netball Championships.
Lavender has gone from the youngest member of the squad that travelled to New Zealand in 2016 to the captain of this current crop of athletes.
“We were out in New Zealand and I was the youngest player on the team so it was certainly an experience. Standing with my team and singing our national anthem really did give me goosebumps, it was amazing,” she said.
“The fact that I’m coming back three years later and I’m now captain means that there is more of a responsibility surrounding the tournament. I do feel like I’m allowed to coach all the new girls because I’m the only one in the U21 Women’s side that has done it before.
“Being able to relay everything I learned as a player last time is brilliant. The team are all willing to listen and learn more.”
Each of the three England Nets teams in Paarl, South Africa, will play eight games of six-a-side Nets and will then, after one day of rest, play an identically intense schedule in the seven-a-side category.
In 2016, the U21 Women squad came close to reaching the final of the six-a-side discipline. They battled bravely against Australia in the semi-finals but fell agonisingly short after extra-time. Ultimately, a penalty shootout was required to separate the two sides.
The close-fought nature of the defeat laid down a marker for future competitions and serves as motivation ahead of this year’s competition.
“We ended up losing that semi-final by one penalty but maybe it wasn’t our time. This year, we’re raring to go with a new group of girls and I’m really excited to see what happens,” she said.
“We’re going in confident and with an open mind. I think we’ve got a really good chance to get out there and have a good go at getting that gold. I’m really excited to get out there and get stuck in.”
Lavender hoping to go one better
England Nets U21 Women will face Australia again this summer alongside hosts South Africa and New Zealand.
All three teams pose different threats to the young squad, who have been undergoing specialist training sessions to best prepare them for the environment and the strengths of their opposition.
“South Africa are very fast with the ball, they’re very quick players. I think it’s a good game for us to start with just to get to grips with the pace in the way they play,” she explained.
“The difference between the three is that they all play different styles but I think that will be brilliant for us to take on board. Personally, I think our squad has a bit of all of those styles. I think we’re a good fight and give them each a good game.”
The 14-strong squad face South Africa in their opening six-a-side encounter on Sunday morning before going onto play Australia and New Zealand respectively.
Lavender believes her side have the quality to become world champions but the captain knows ability alone is not enough to go all the way.
“We have some really brilliant shooters in our squad. In defence, we have girls that hunt the ball and turn over the ball. In midcourt, we have a lot of fitness and bringing down court quick enough to get through the defenders. We have such a good variety of players in our squad that anyone can come on and make an impact.
“I think it’s all about keeping our heads up and having the mentality to keep going regardless of what the score is. We just need to keep going, keep pushing through and not stopping until the final whistle has blown.”
“I’m hoping we can get a similar level of support”
Lavender, a three-time gold medal winner at the London Youth Games, spent her time watching the Vitality Netball World Cup in Liverpool this summer.
Lavender hopes that the momentum built through that tournament can help gather interest for the World Indoor Netball Championships and England Nets.
“The Vitality Roses had such a big support behind them, not just the crowds but from people watching on TV. I think the fact that we’re coming afterwards means that fans might think back to how well England did at the Vitality Netball World Cup and want to watch a different version of netball. I’m hoping we can get a similar level of support,” she said.
All fixtures listed are in UK time – South Africa is currently one hour ahead.
6’s Day One (Sunday 4 August) – South Africa vs England (9:00) / England vs Australia (11:00) / New Zealand vs England (14:00). 6’s Day Two (Monday 5 August) – Australia vs England (08:00) / South Africa vs England (11:00) / New Zealand vs England (13:00).
7’s Day One (Thursday 8 August) – Australia vs England (07:00) / South Africa vs England (10:45) / New Zealand vs England (13:15) / Australia vs England (15:45). 7’s Day Two (Friday 9 August) – South Africa vs England (9:15) / New Zealand vs England (11:45).
England Ladies U21 Women Squad:
Lali Anderson, Vanessa Beal, Jasmine Burt, Ziana Butt, Victoria Lavender (Captain), Emma Linnett, Stephanie Marsden, Abby Miles, Hannah Raine, Marney Ross-Johnson, Rebecca Smith, Kalea Stagg, Brooke Vivian, Emily Geear, Shelley Copland (Head Coach), Lauren Townson (Team Manager).
For more information, visit the World Indoor Netball Association website.