McCallin ready to use Euros pain to ensure GB qualify for Tokyo 2020

Rio 2016 hockey gold medallist Shona McCallin explains how she and her England team-mates will be using their Euros disappointment to ensure GB qualify for Tokyo 2020.

I’m back! Back on the international hockey scene after 17 months out of the game and back blogging for The 52.

When asked to write a piece on England’s recent EuroHockey Championships campaign, I was slightly reluctant at first.

On paper, it was our worst European showing in more than a decade. 

You have to go back to 2003 as being the last time England’s women finished outside the medals at the event; until now.

I’m personally still very much hurting from the tournament. To finish fourth, outside of the medals, hurts; the way we performed hurts and the semi-final result really hurts.

The scars from our 8-0 defeat at the hands of the Dutch run really deep and will be etched in my memory for a long time. 

I’ve not watched the game back but I will. I will because it will help the recovery process. I will because I don’t shy away from uncomfortable things. I will because I want to learn.

I will because I want to ensure it never, ever happens again.

Going into the tournament, a victory for England would have ensured a place at next year’s Olympics for Great Britain’s women. 

That was our aim. It didn’t happen so the focus now switches to regrouping as a GB squad and qualifying through a two-legged Olympic Qualifier.

The draw for the event took place last month, with Chile selected as our opponents, a team I’ve never played against in my six years as an international hockey player. 

We will face off in two matches over two days in London on 2-3 November, with the aggregate score totalled up and the winner taking it all – Olympic qualification.

There is no opportunity for an off day, no opportunity to qualify through a different route.

This is it, crunch time.

We win the series, we qualify. We lose, we don’t qualify. Simple.

As Tokyo draws closer, I’m finding myself having more frequent conversations with friends and family members about the Olympics.

The conversations are often long and quite confusing, leading me to think that the whole qualifying process is unnecessarily complicated for both hockey and non-hockey fans.

It requires some teams to wrack up a serious amount of air miles and is not consistent across continents. For a team like Spain to qualify, they had to win the Euros, overcoming six of the world’s top ten teams. Conversely, New Zealand secured their place by winning a three-game series against Australia. I hope it’s a process that’s amended by our governing body, the FIH, before Paris 2024.

I always state that, first and foremost, GB women still need to qualify – winning gold at Rio 2016 doesn’t automatically qualify you for Tokyo 2020.

The countdown is on and training has begun. A gruelling first week of fitness testing is out the way and it’s now about knuckling down as a team to ensure we are in the best shape, physically and mentally, come that first game on 2 November.

Some good and honest conversations between the whole squad and staff have been had and actions put in place. A clear and structured training plan has been implemented to improve the areas of our game that fell short as both GB during the FIH Pro League and as England at the Euros, whilst we will also continue to build on our strengths.

This Olympic qualification process means we are all entering an unknown that is exciting, nerve-wracking and pressurised.

Never has a place on the pinnacle of our sport rested on two matches in 24 hours and it’s time to show up.

Come the first weekend of November, we will be ready. And we hope so see many of you there cheering us on!

The track and field stars hitting back against body shamers

With the 2019 World Athletics Championships well underway, Julia Cook takes a look into the issues of body shaming that have become more and more prevalent in track and field over recent years.

There’s no doubt about it, Eilish McColgan is having a sensational year.

Recording personal bests across five distances since January and fresh off being crowned the British 5000m champion, she’s been going from strength to strength.

So strong is her form at the moment that some are tipping her as having an outside chance of claiming a maiden World Championship medal in Doha later this week.

However 2019 hasn’t all been plain sailing, with McColgan having faced sponsorship struggles, a robbery and body shaming. 

Fortunately the former of those problems has already been solved, with ASICS snapping up the  28-year-old after a year of the Scot having no sponsor at all.

However it was this new partnership that led to her being body shamed, with comments such as “damn that’s skinny” and another adding, “yes… bit too much” appearing on an ASICS Instagram post that featured the 2018 European silver medallist.

You just have to look at her impressive performances on the track to see that her size plays no impact on her running.

She didn’t just win the national title a few weeks ago; she dominated the field, taking victory by almost 15 second and also lowering her own personal best in the process.

While she could have kept quiet and ignored the comments, McColgan chose on this occasion to fight back, highlighting the potential issues that body shaming can have on young girls and women and reminding them that ‘It’s YOUR fabulous body.’

Sadly, this is not the first time that women within athletics have found themselves on the receiving end of this kind of abuse.

American Allie Ostrander – who just missed out on a place in the 3000m steeplechase final in Qatar – found herself at the centre of a body shaming debate back in June, calling out commentators for talking about her appearance, rather than her performance.

As she stormed to a third NCAAs title in the event, commentators focused not on her achievements but instead decided to recite statistics about her height and weight. Even worse, the numbers they shared turned out to be incorrect.

Taking to Instagram to explain her frustrations, Ostrander said: ‘Not only were these comments objectifying and unnecessary, they drew attention away from the real focus of the event.’

Like McColgan, she also highlighted the impact that commentators can have on the listeners, especially in a sport where eating disorders are rife, stating: ‘The media has an opportunity to help women (and men!) feel capable, powerful, and worthy but, by focusing on appearance and body proportions, this opportunity is missed.’

Screenshot 2019-09-29 at 23.14.17

Whilst the focus on how their bodies look is particularly an issue for women, recent comments directed towards Olympic, World, European and Commonwealth champion Greg Rutherford show that men are not immune to body shaming either.

He also used social media to hit back at trolls who pointed out his ‘dad bod’ whilst he was training for a charity swim.

“I very much realise I’m not in the shape I was as a professional athlete. I’m fine with that, I love cake and beer…” he responded.

It’s not just McColgan, Ostrander and Rutherford who have sparked debate on body shaming within track and field either. Very few athletes seem to be immune to the comments, including some of the biggest names the sport has seen.

Just weeks before her stunning Olympic gold medal in London – seven years ago – Jessica Ennis-Hill was branded “fat” by a high ranking official, causing her coach Toni Minichiello to dismiss the criticism.

Another who has had to endure comments about her body is three-time Olympian Amber Campbell, a hammer thrower for whom many have chosen to focus solely on her size and shape instead of recognising her achievements on the field, including finishing sixth at Rio 2016.

Olympic and World bronze medallist Anyika Onuora also bravely opened up last year about body confidence issues and having to endure abuse about her physique growing up from some high ranking individuals in the sport. She is now using her experiences to inspire the next generation to love and accept their bodies. 

 

Track and field is an incredible sport where any body shape can excel. Every athlete may look different but there is one consistent; they’re all world class athletes at the top of their game, showing truly that it doesn’t matter what your body looks like, but rather what it is capable of.

By focusing on the size and the shape of athlete’s bodies, people are suggesting that not only do they need to be at the best in their sport, but also be compliant with societal standards of what they should look like at the same time. 

The need some people have to body shame online has always been a confounding issue and by challenging it these athletes are bringing to attention the fact that it should never be the case in sport where we focus on what the body looks like.

Instead our attention should be solely on what these bodies can achieve.
If I have one message to the trollers, it’s this: The quality of your life has not decreased because you’re not telling the internet your opinions of an athlete’s body, and yet your silence greatly increases the quality of theirs. 

The Dream Gap Tour: How 200 players are fighting to change the face of women’s ice hockey

Alasdair Hooper takes us through the almost unprecedented situation in North America where many of the world’s best ice hockey players are refusing to play professionally in order to get the rights they deserve.

Imagine a scenario where 200 of the best footballers refused to take part in an FA WSL season until they got the resources they deserved.

Consider the likes of Steph Houghton, Kim Little and Fran Kirby all sitting out; think about what a bombshell moment that would be.

The point behind bringing you this hypothetical case study is because that is exactly what has happened in women’s ice hockey.

It was one of the most dramatic moves in an eventful 18 months for the sport – but it’s a move that could transform things for generations to come.

Turn back the clock to February 2018 and the United States national team won Winter Olympic gold for the first time in 20 years.

In doing so they finally overcame arch rivals Canada, with recognisable stars such as Hilary Knight arguably becoming more popular than ever have been before.

But just over a year on from that triumph, women’s ice hockey was left stunned when the Canadian Women’s Hockey League folded in March 2019 after 12 seasons.

The reason behind its demise was supposedly an insufficient financial model and a funding gap.

That meant ice hockey stars like Knight, and Canadian forward Marie-Philip Poulin, were without a team for the upcoming season.

With the Canadian league gone the presumption was that stars would flock to the five-team National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) in America – the only remaining and viable professional league for women.

But that didn’t happen.

Instead, 200 players announced in May that they wouldn’t be playing in a women’s professional league this season “until we get the resources that professional women’s hockey demands and deserves.”

Among the 200 was Knight, Poulin and also Kendall Coyne Schofield who, earlier in 2019, had become the first woman to compete in an NHL All-Stars skills competition.

The Dream Gap Tour
Following the bombshell announcement, we witnessed the formation of the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association (PWHPA).

This season the union launched The Dream Gap Tour, essentially a tour made up of PWHPA members looking to bring together the sport’s key stakeholders to the table to establish a single league with a sustainable economic model.

The tour’s first stop was last weekend (September 20-22) in Toronto with union members playing in exhibition games against Boston College on the Saturday and against alumni of the San Jose Sharks on the Sunday.

“We as players are playing with the intention of leaving this game better than we entered it,” Coyne Schofield told Reuters.

“And we have control over our image, our skill, our talent and ultimately the product we put on the ice.”

There is no doubt that the PWHPA and The Dream Gap Tour should be taken seriously.

Not only does it have a host of stars behind it, it also currently has tennis and equality pioneer Billie Jean King’s company serving in a leadership and guidance role.

On Friday September 20, the National Hockey League Players’ Association (NHLPA) also announced it would serve as a PWHPA sponsor.

“The main goal has always been the main goal: that’s to build a sustainable, viable option and we haven’t seen that quite yet,” said Knight to Reuters.

“There’s a reason why there’s collective minds that are out there trying to forge a new future for the game.”

“It was the kick in the butt we needed”
The tide is turning in women’s sport. The birth of the PWHPA is just a small example of that. 

Female athletes aren’t just content to play their sport anymore – they’re in it to fight for the pay and conditions that they feel they deserve.

They’ve been neglected these rights for far too long.

“It was obviously devastating when the CWHL folded,” Sarah Nurse – who played for the Toronto Furies last season – told ESPN.

“But it was the kick in the butt we needed to push for what we truly want and what we truly deserve.

“It was very easy for a lot of the girls to be happy in the spots that we were in and not push for more. We didn’t want to take a lateral step, we wanted a step forward.”

She added: “It’s not just the pay equity and pay gap – that will come, and we know that’s something that is not going to come overnight.

“But it’s the professionalism that we’re looking for. Simple things like getting our laundry done, ice time before 9:30pm at night, being able to travel on the road with a full staff.

“Last season we often travelled without our athletic therapist and medical team, we were often sharing medical staff with other teams.

“Our coaching staff didn’t have access to video resources, they didn’t have their own locker rooms. Our equipment manager couldn’t give us laces or hockey tape. We had to go buy them ourselves.”

Alyssa Gagliardi, who played for the Boston Pride in the NWHL last year, also told ESPN: “We didn’t want to just jump into the only option, because it was the only option.

“We wanted to make sure we were thinking long term about the future of the sport.

“I was grateful to have the NWHL opportunity but, looking forward, I want to be part of a professional league where I can make a liveable wage, have health insurance, full-time staff, all of those aspects.”

“We’re not going anywhere”
So, what of the NWHL? Its league season starts on October 5 but Dani Rylan – the NWHL commissioner – is defiant.

“We’re not going anywhere,” she told ESPN.

“It’s definitely disappointing, to say the least, when the people that you built a business for, or a platform for, feel that destroying that business is the best way forward.”

You get the impression that – not only do the PWHPA see the NWHL as insufficient – they also see it as a major hurdle.

Long term the goal here for many of the boycotting players is to create a single women’s pro league that has the support of the National Hockey League (NHL), much like the way the NBA supports the WNBA.

During her interview with ESPN earlier in September, Rylan admitted to taking the move personally.

“Yes, I do. And I think there are some players where it hurts a little bit more that they made this decision,” she said.

“Not just hurts me personally, but also the other people in the league who invested in them, who have done a lot to help players grow their brands and grow as hockey players.

“Maybe that means players that made the national team who weren’t in that conversation before,” she said.

 

Is it worth the risk?
All of this means there are several questions, which we don’t know the answers to.

For example, is there a rift between PWHPA players and those in the NWHL? Not publicly at this stage anyway.

“Everyone’s situation is different,” said Gagliardi to ESPN.

“I have friends who are playing in the NWHL – they’re still good friends. We respect everyone’s decision.

“Ultimately I saw this as an opportunity to be a voice for change for the future. We’ve all had to have an internal conversation with ourselves. And if my hockey career is done, and I never get to play a professional hockey game again, I’m OK with it – knowing the next generation might be able to do it for a living.”

That is ultimately what is at stake here. The risk versus the reward.

It’s undoubtedly a risk to go it alone without the NWHL. It’s a risk going down the line of wanting to create a league with the backing of the NHL. And it’s a major risk in potentially sacrificing your professional hockey careers for the next generation.

But what it has done is woken everyone up to the harshness of the situation. These conditions can’t go on and it takes a bombshell moment like this to force that change.

This is a risk worth taking.

Record FA WSL Attendances A Start; Now Let’s Make It Regular

With record attendances at the opening weekend of the 2019/20 Barclays FA WSL season, Reading’s Remi Allen tells us why the players want nothing more than to play in front of packed stadiums every single week.

The FA WSL made its long awaited return earlier this month, an exciting time for everyone involved in women’s football after all the backing and support shown to the game during the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup.

Two exciting opening derby fixtures – Manchester City v Manchester United and Chelsea v Tottenham – were the pick of the bunch, not only due to the nature of the rivalries but also they were being held at the Etihad Stadium and Stamford Bridge respectively, with record crowds expected.

Chelsea created a great atmosphere, bringing in more than 25,000 people, while Manchester City attracted the biggest ever FA WSL crowd of 31,323 – that’s around six times more fans than the previous best.

Surely this shows great progress in the women’s game right?

My answer to that question is inherently yes; however we cannot allow that to become a one off or something that just happens only when we play in the biggest mens stadiums.

Bristol City also hosted their first game in a stadium usually frequented by the men, a clever move that saw them playing in front of 3,041 fans at Ashton Gate.

But the other games only drew in crowds of around 1,000 people. While still above last season’s average attendance of 833, there is obviously a huge difference in numbers there.

As a professional footballer, I am not naive enough to believe we have the capabilities to attract crowds of 30,000 week-in week-out just yet but I do believe we can keep striving and pushing for better.

The women’s game is far more accessible than it has ever been in terms of social media, TV coverage and the ability to connect with players. The fact that we now have the ability to watch every game on The FA Player is also a huge step in the right direction.

I would encourage anyone not sure on women’s football to watch via this, just to be able to appreciate the sheer quality of our game, how hard we work and actually how enjoyable it is. I think the more people that buy into this the more likely it is to get them to physically attend matches.

 

And actually attending women’s football matches is quite frankly a bargain in terms of pricing while also an unbelievable way for all young boys and girls out there to watch their role models live. It’s a great opportunity for them to see how you can have a dream and it can become a reality.

We were once them kids dreaming of a game we loved and now we get to live it every single day. It is literally our dream job.

As for me, I think it’s brilliant to play in some of the best stadiums in the world but what I find even more incredible is playing in front of a huge crowd, experiencing the buzz of them singing your name, the pure joy it brings to their faces and the interaction we as players get to have with them afterwards.

In total 63,000 fans travelled the country to watch the opening games of the FA WSL. It was an amazing start to what is going to be one of the most exciting seasons to date.

So let’s not take our foot of the gas. Keep coming, keep supporting in big stadiums or small stadiums; it doesn’t matter.

We need you.

#BeSeenBeHeardBeInspired – The Next Chapter For The 52

 

What a summer it’s been for women’s sport.

There were World Cups and Ashes series. Joy and despair. Elation and ovations. Heartbreak and heartache.

Medals were won, goals scored, wickets taken.

The skill levels never wavered from world class, with barely believable sporting brilliance happening at regular intervals.

Not that this was different to any normal summer.

No, the big change wasn’t on the field – it was off it. For once, all of the action took place in full view of the public eye.

The action wasn’t unprecedented but the level of media coverage certainly was.

A recent study by the Women’s Sport Trust revealed between 7 June-14 July, around 46% of the top ten stories and 54.5% of the ‘most watched video clips’ on the BBC Sport website featured women’s sport.

Furthermore roughly a third of the leading sport stories on the Telegraph’s (30.2%) and Guardian’s (28.3%) online sport pages during the Women’s Football World Cup and Wimbledon were about women’s sport.

And then there was the TV and radio coverage. BBC showed every single Women’s Football World Cup match, a decent proportion of which on its main channels, while Sky Sports also showed every game from the Netball World Cup and the Ashes.

The Beeb also aired many of the netball games, while talkSPORT played radio host to the football World Cup.

The Telegraph and GiveMeSport also launched dedicated women’s sport sections, while the BBC ran their #ChangeTheGame campaign.

Never before had we been exposed to this level of coverage dedicated solely to our female athletes. Perhaps for the first time, we as fans could fully immerse ourselves in women’s sport over a concert period of time.

We cheered. We cried. We punched the air. We screamed at the TV. We emulated celebrations. We debated.

And all because we were given the chance to.

Despite what the minority may argue, women’s sport wasn’t shoved down our throats. It wasn’t portrayed so heavily in the media just to tick a box. It didn’t dominate the back pages just to pacify the PC brigade.

It was shown simply because the demand is there.

We proved this last year with more than 6,000 hits to our site despite being a tiny independent blog with no financial backing whatsoever.

If we can achieve that, just think of the reach women’s sport could get if ALL the major outlets took it seriously.

That is where we face our biggest challenge yet.

Gender equality in media sports coverage can’t be just as a fad; it needs to become the norm.

The results from this summer are hugely promising but they can’t be a one off. We can’t go back to a time where less than 3% of sports photos in national newspapers are of women, with days where absolutely no women were depicted whatsoever, as found by Totally Runable as recently as 2018.

As a result, as part of our rebrand, The 52 is dedicating itself to ensuring exactly that happens.

By recruiting an expanded writing team to cover as many areas of women’s sport as possible to give the deepest insight, we are aiming to give women’s sport the platform it deserves.

The platform to #BeSeenBeHeardBeInspired.

#BeSeen
Women’s sport cannot flourish any further if it’s not given a chance to. This summer has proved the demand for it is there amongst the British public and now we need to make sure the level of coverage only continues to grow.

We need to treat women the same way in which we treat the men though. That’s not only profiling the incredible stories and recognising stunning achievements but also tackling the more important issues too. If a point needs making, we will make it. If a controversial topic needs addressing, we will address it. If a question needs asking, we will ask it.

#BeHeard
The more we see women’s sport, the more likely we are to talk about it. How cool would it be to overhear children discussing whether they’d rather be like KJT or Dina Asher-Smith? People at the pub debating whether Leanne Riley or Natasha ‘Mo’ Hunt should start at scrum half for England in their next Six Nations game? Groups of friends gathered round a phone trying to work out whether they can attend the next round of Barclays FAWSL fixtures?

While it’s crucial to make gender equality in sports media the norm, this will only allow us to reach a certain number of people. We need to get people talking about women’s sport with their friends, uncles, neighbours and strangers in the street if we are going to make sure it reaches everyone in the country.

#BeInspired
For too long aspiring female athletes grew up with only male role models to copy. Many of those who have made it to the elite level have often said they were barely aware of their female counterparts.

But we are now in a position to change that, to inspire girls to want to take up a sport and try to emulate their female heroes, if we make sure women’s sport continues to be seen and heard.

Of course there’s nothing wrong with a young female cricketer wanting to be the next Ben Stokes. But at the same time she should have the option to aspire to emulate Katherine Brunt or Georgia Elwiss too.

If we want to inspire the next generation, we need to increase how much we see and hear about women’s sport. And the more the next generation are inspired, the more we will see and hear about women’s sport.

That’s what we want. True media equality, giving women as much coverage as men, good or bad.

The chance to #BeSeenBeHeardBeInspired.

WRITING OPPORTUNITY: Join The 52

Women’s sport is in the best position it’s ever been.

More people are watching, playing, reading, writing and talking about it than any other time in recent memory.

Three major outlets – BBC, The Telegraph and GiveMeSport – now all have dedicated campaigns to supply the content demanded by so many and the level of coverage across most media outlets seems to be on the up as well.

At The 52, we like to think we have played a small part too – we received nearly 6,300 hits on our website during our year-long project to champion and promote inspiring individuals, teams, groups and schemes in women’s sport.

There is still a lot to be done though.

Outside of major competitions, there is still a large disparity in terms of the coverage afforded to women’s sport.

Quite rightly, the demise of Bury and Bolton has been dominating the headlines in the last few weeks. The outrage has been clear and there have been seemingly endless debates on what can be done to stop this happening again.

But where was the coverage when a similar fate happened to Notts County’s women’s team back in 2017, when England internationals found themselves out of a job overnight? Or just last season when Yeovil’s women were forced to revert back to part-time status while still in the top-tier Women’s Super League?

How many of you read anything about the inaugural W Series as it happened this year? Golf’s Solheim Cup – the women’s version of the Ryder Cup – begins in Scotland in just two weeks; how much have you heard about that? What about the fantastic success of GB’s female para-canoeists at the recent World Championships?

There is still a lot of work to be done and The 52 wants to be at the heart of that, giving women’s sport the platform it deserves.

However, if we are going to make a significant difference then we need YOUR help!

As part of our exciting re-brand over the next few weeks, we want to put together a team of writers with a range of knowledge and expertise to give the best possible insight into women’s sport; to elicit debate and discuss the most important topics; to bring you the stories that may have gone untold by the major outlets and continue to promote the incredible people within it.

You can write as much or as little as you like; it can be once a week, once every two months or even just a one-off article.

You can write on pretty much any sport you want, from the mainstream events such as football, rugby and cricket to boccia, archery and cross-country skiing. The choice is yours!

So far we have already been fortunate enough to recruit an Olympic champion hockey player, a world champion trampolinist and two exciting young journalists and really hope to add even more talent to that roster.

So if you’re an athlete, coach, aspiring (or current) journalist or someone who is heavily involved in women’s sport, we want to hear from you!

All you need to do is send us an email to editor@the52blog.co.uk or a message on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram (you can find us @the_52blog).

We can’t wait to hear from you!

Australia’s women were a class above England in 2019 Ashes, but why?

Well that wasn’t the summer of cricket we were expecting.

To many it was no surprise to see Australia’s women retain the Ashes for a third consecutive series.

But the emphatic way in which they did so was a shock. And a worrying one at that.

The stats don’t lie. England were beaten. Heavily.

With the series finishing 12-4, this was the joint largest margin of victory since the introduction of the multi-format scoring system in 2013, when England beat Australia by the same scoreline.

Since then the biggest margin of victory had been four points when Australia won in 2015, while the 2017/18 series was drawn.

The difference between this time round was huge though. Across the series, the four top run scorers were all Australian while four of the top five wicket takers also donned the Baggy Green – Sophie Ecclestone was the exception, claiming an impressive 13 wickets and shining throughout. The mercurial Ellyse Perry topped both charts.

So why were the Australians so much better than an England side who famously won the World Cup just two years before?

To me, it seems as though there were two reasons: the brand of cricket they played and the investment that has been made into the domestic game Down Under.

Often throughout this series it felt like we were watching England’s male World Cup-winning team of 2019 taking on their counterparts that flopped so infamously four years before.

Australia adopted an innovative, aggressive, domineering form of cricket clearly created in a T20 style and adapted to each match situation, while England tended to revert to a more cautious, old-fashioned manner that often wasn’t suited to the occasion.

That’s not to say England were incapable of showcasing a more progressive style – Lauren Winfield and Katherine Brunt showed fantastic skill and inventiveness with the bat to help their side out of a hole and set them on course for victory in the final T20I.

It’s just that they didn’t do it enough.

It was as though many of the players were void of the confidence they had shown back in 2017 and didn’t trust themselves, while in stark contrast the Australians were brimming with it and fully committed to the brand of cricket they were playing.

This can be closely linked to the second factor that I believe is behind their success and this is the investment that has been made into their domestic cricket, particularly the Women’s Big Bash League (WBBL).

Since the WBBL replaced the Women’s T20 Cup for the 2015/16 season, it’s been very noticeable just how quickly the skillsets of the Australian players have improved.

And with plans to expand the women’s domestic game further announced a few days ago (alongside equal prize money at the 2021 T20 World Cup), the fear for the rest of the world is they will only get even better.

It’s clear to see just how hard the players have worked on developing their game – they’re hitting the ball harder and further, there are so many more variations on show with bat and ball and they’re not afraid to trying something funky tactically to swing the game in their favour.

While the WBBL is still aligned with the men’s tournament, in many ways it also feels like a tournament within its own right in the way it is treated on social media and by broadcasters, as we discussed earlier this year.

These women aren’t playing in the shadows of the men; they are recognised as exceptional cricketers in their own right.

Furthermore it also runs in conjunction with the 50-over National Women’s Cricket League and as a result there are now more than 100 professional female cricketers in Australia, with that number rising.

This also means that a whole host of exciting new stars are coming through into the international set up and cementing their places in at least one format of the game with some exceptional performances. This includes Ash Gardner, Beth Mooney, Sophie Molineux and Georgia Wareham to name but a few.

 

By contrast, due to the central contracting system, there are only 21 fully professional cricketers in England despite there being many more players in the county set up than Australia’s state-based system.

And while the exciting talents of Freya Davies, Katie George and Bryony Smith have recently made their debuts for England, onlyKia Ecclestone has really forced her way in recent time into that core group that has represented the country for so long.

In some cases that can be due to bad luck – George suffered a nasty back injury last November just as she was becoming a regular – but it often seems as though these youngsters aren’t trusted on the biggest stages.

That could well come down to the aforementioned difference in the level of the domestic game, with England’s current county cricket system almost entirely amateur and the Kia Super League (KSL) not taking off anywhere near as well as hoped or expected.

It’s not like Australia possess more naturally talented cricketers (with maybe one or two exceptions) – they just have better opportunities and facilities to develop their games.

As a result, while Australia have improved rapidly, England’s seem to have stagnated.

However there are some exciting and much needed changes being planned for the next few years that could well accelerate the growth of professionalism and skill in English domestic women’s cricket to rival Australia’s.

With the much talked about addition of The Hundred next season, the ECB have adopted Cricket Australia’s plan and will run a women’s competition alongside the men’s, closely affiliating the teams with their male counterparts and ensuring a good amount of coverage.

Furthermore they have also promised a £20m investment in women’s cricket that will see the creation of eight new Regional Centres of Excellence. These will then be paired with the teams in The Hundred and compete in a new 50-over competition to replace the current existing one, with two ‘marquee’ England players selected for each team.

They have also backtracked on a plan to completely scrap women’s county cricket and have promised to fund the County T20 Cup until the end of 2021.

All of this means that there will be more opportunities for talent to grow and develop at an elite level while also hopefully focusing on implementing a new style of cricket into the players from an early age that they can then carry through their careers.

This is a change that is also needed with the international stars too. Once the dust has settled from this series, they need to embrace change as the men did after the 2015 World Cup and re-invent themselves.

They are all incredibly talented players, they just need to be able to show it consistently on the international stage. And, as has been proven time and time again over the last few years, they’re not going to do it the way they are at the moment.

Will this lead to much of a change in the outcome for the 2021/22 Ashes series? It’s far too early to tell.

But one thing that is clear is that if they’re not careful, England could fall a long way behind their most bitter of rivals. Snd we certainly can’t be having that.

Netball World Cup Special: Liz Watson

Success comes naturally to Liz Watson.

She may only be 25 but already the Australian netball star has experienced plenty of it in her sporting career.

Her cabinet currently boasts three Netball Quad Series golds and a Commonwealth Games silver with the Samsung Diamonds as well as an ANZ Championship title secured with the Melbourne Vixens back in 2014.

Individually she’s also won a stack of awards too, including the prestigious Liz Ellis Diamond and Australian International Player of the Year accolades in 2018 as well as two Sharelle McMahon Medals for being the Vixens’ best and fairest player.

Watson will be hoping to add the 2019 Netball World Cup to that collection on 21 July and says that where she grew up has played a major part in developing such a competitive attitude.

“I’ve been so lucky to have grown up in Victoria, it’s such a good netball state,” the Diamonds’ vice-captain explained.

“Right from your junior days you get instilled into you that success and winning is part of the Victorian culture so you get this competitive nature right from the very start.”

It’s not just her external environment that has made Watson so good but the people who surround her too.

Her uncle is Steve Alessio, who appeared in 182 AFL games for Essendon, while one of her older brothers Matthew also played for Carlton between 2011-2015.

And while they may have helped instil that edge needed to make the cut as a professional athlete, Watson puts much of her success down to the love, care and support she’s received from her entire unit of family and friends, especially her parents.

“They travelled over the Liverpool when I debuted for my country a few years ago, they come to every Vixens game, they try and get to away ones as well,” Watson said of her mum and dad.

“They’re always there supporting and even if they can’t be there’s a text, a phone call – there’s always that love and support there.

“That goes to my family and friends, my partner – everyone is just really proud and really happy of what I’m able to achieve and that makes me proud to see how much it connects them and how much they really love it. It makes you want to do really well.”

 

While they could all lay claim to being her biggest fan, Watson admits that accolade can only go to one person.

“My mum’s mum, my Nonna – she absolutely loves netball” Watson said.

“She comes to every Vixens home game that we have and she always says that if I can wear bright coloured shoes it makes it easier for her to spot who I am out on court because apparently we’re all blonde and tall and all look the same.

“She’ll be watching back home on TV and she’ll just be looking for bright shoes.

“I’ll have to probably get some brighter ones, I’m not sure my current blue ones are going to stand out!”

Not only are her family proud of what she’s achieved already on the court, they should also be proud of the person she is off it too.

Watson is a polite, friendly and firmly grounded individual who knows that she is in a position where she can inspire the next generation to take up sport, whether that be netball or another.

“I love going out to see the kids, share the knowledge and all my experience with them and hopefully they’ll either take up netball or continue playing netball or just sport in general,” she explained.

“We’re slowly losing sport with our young kids and I have that opportunity to use what I’ve done, the places I’ve gone and share my stories with them and hopefully inspire them to take up sport.

“It’s so important to give back and share what we’ve learned and encourage them to have their own opportunities and create their own stories.

“To see the excitement and joy on kids faces when they have one little interaction with you is great. You could be having the worst day or the worst game or be quite tired but to them that doesn’t matter, they just want to say ‘Hey’ and give you a high-five and it just brings you back down to earth and what’s real.

“We want to inspire our country and the next generation.”

This is something Watson will continue to do once her netball career is over too as she’s currently studying to become a primary school teacher.

However she does admit that every now and again it’s nice to not be recognised, although with netball’s growing popularity she also knows that may not be so easy.

“I actually tried to hide it on my placement and not let on that I’m a netballer but a few young girls in the Grade 1 class came up with some Vixen posters so once they’d had them signed the news travelled around the school,” she recalled.

“I’m probably more of a teacher in that sense but there are a few lovely little netball fans who recognise you and that’s a good thing as well.

“They’re probably more likely to listen to me. They probably get a different view on me as well if they’re misbehaving!

“It’s good for them to see I’m not just a netballer, I have other things in my life and do other things.

“I definitely have their attention at the start, it’s just how long I can keep it for!”

As for the World Cup itself, Watson is confident that the Diamonds can claim a fourth straight title and a 12th in total.

Yet despite knowing there’s a perfect opportunity to exact revenge on England for last year’s Commonwealth Games final, she says her team are only focusing on themselves and not letting anything else distract them.

“Our first goal is to get to the final. I don’t care who we’re playing – we just want to be in that final and win it,” she stated.

“It could be England, it could be New Zealand, it could be South Africa. There are so many good teams up there and we just want to get our squad into that final before we think about the opposition.

“It’s a very tough draw so we just want to make sure that we have that slot and whoever we play we know we can beat them.”

Netball World Cup Special: Shannon Saunders

Shannon Saunders’ netball career will complete a full circle at 9am tomorrow when she steps out onto Liverpool Arena’s court for the opening game of the 2019 Netball World Cup.

Having made her New Zealand debut back in 2013, there were fears she’d played her last international match at last year’s Commonwealth Games.

While England left Australia’s Gold Coast on top of the world, it was a much more sobering experience for the Silver Ferns as they missed out on both making the Commonwealth final and winning a medal for the first time.

As a result Saunders (then known as Shannon Francois) was one of a number of players who found themselves out of the squad as New Zealand looked to re-build.

That gave the centre a chance to take a break from the game that had dominated her life and shift her focus onto other things, including her marriage to partner Marcus in January.

The time away also helped Saunders rediscover her love for the sport she’d excelled at for so long and she returned to club outfit Southern Steel in blistering form earlier this year.

Despite this, the 59-time-capped athlete admitted she was still surprised when she received the call confirming she would be travelling over to England for this showpiece event.

‘It was incredible, I wasn’t expecting it at all so it’s really cool to come here with my team-mates,” the 28-year-old recalled.

“It’s awesome to be back playing. It’s given me a new found appreciation for netball and I’m really excited to get out there and help my team as much as I can and hopefully we can be successful.

“I think I just found my love for the game again.

“I went away and had a bit more time in my personal life and really found out that it was what I really wanted to do and that I really am passionate about netball.”

Such a comeback is testament to Saunders’ character; it’s not the first time she has shown such resilience either.

Back in 2017, she was twice diagnosed with skin cancer.

Fortunately on both occasions it was caught early and the basal cell carcinomas were removed without issue but it was still a real shock for the University of Otago graduate, particularly as her sister was also diagnosed with something similar at the same time.

But Saunders was determined to not let it affect her life or her netball too much and returned for Steel just eight days after having the first carcinoma removed from her head.

“It’s always at the back of your mind but it’s just changed what I do day to day – I wear a lot more sunscreen!” she joked, admitting she’s enjoying the warm British weather.

“It just makes sure I definitely don’t take things for granted. The ones I had were definitely not too serious so I was very lucky.

“I just wanted to get straight back out there – I think I had 30 stitches in my head at the time! But it was fine, I had all my team-mates there to support me so that was all good.”

While 2018 may have been a poor year for the Silver Ferns, they are heading into this tournament quietly confident of rediscovering their best form.

They enjoyed a highly competitive Cadbury Netball Series back home last month in which they came up against New Zealand’s men on two occasions in a unique move for the sport.

With netball seen as a predominantly female sport woridwide, Saunders says it was a great opportunity to showcase just how talented her country’s male athletes are and hopes it will encourage others to push their men forward too.

“It was good to play the men and experience the physicality and test ourselves against the taller shooters who we’ll come up against with against the likes of Jamaica,” Saunders – who also works as a pharmacist – said.

“It was really cool. We’ve played them a wee bit before behind closed doors and in camps but it was an awesome spectacle and really raised the awareness of the men’s team throughout New Zealand which was really exciting.

“I think they’re incredible and they play the game at such speed and are so aerial.

“A lot of countries are now starting to develop their men’s teams so it would be great if they could play each other.”

As for the Silver Ferns, Saunders believes being seen as a potential underdog in this tournament could work in their favour.

Netball legend Dame Lois Muir also recently said she believes the team are in a strong position heading into the event, quotes that Saunders knows her team will take a lot of confidence from.

“It’s always nice to be underdogs as you go under the radar,” she stated.

“We as a team just really want to prove ourselves and play really well for ourselves, our family and also the nation. We know we have the quality to do it and are excited to put it out there on the court.

“It’s always really nice. We’ve been training super hard and really well so it’s been great when people who have been watching us externally say that we’re on the right track, doing the right things and confirm that we’re going in the right direction.”

Netball World Cup Special: Jo Weston

“I’ve always been somewhat gregarious. My Mum used to say ‘there’s no show without Jo!’”

Speaking to Jo Weston, you wouldn’t realise she is just days away from one of the toughest tests of her netball career; the 2019 Netball World Cup.

The Australian is a fun, relaxed individual off the court and seems totally at ease with life as she prepares to step out into Liverpool’s Echo Arena to represent the Samsung Diamonds against Northern Ireland at 11am on Friday.

“I’ve always been a little bit odd and interested in things that perhaps are atypical of athletes,” she admits.

“I think it [the gregariousness] comes from the dancing background, just wanting to be the star.

“I think my team-mates sometimes get a little bit annoyed about it but I guess they put up with it. I do try to turn it down a little bit occasionally!”

Make no mistake though; Weston is a seriously talented athlete.

Not that she’ll necessarily grab the headlines – it tends to be the goal shooters who do that.

As a versatile defender though her job is to stop exactly that from happening and this is something she has done with aplomb for a number of years both internationally and with her domestic team Melbourne Vixens.

Despite this, the 24-year-old says she had an anxious wait to find out whether or not she’d be playing at her first World Cup.

“I was a little bit nervous actually and I think I was the last one to find out. I was barely able to swipe to answer the phone call!” she recalls.

“I was so over the moon, so excited, but I also felt a bit of relief as well.

“Selection is such a stressful time period and you build up a lot of possible situations in your head so when you are one of the lucky ones that was selected you can breathe a bit of a deep sigh.

“It still feels a little bit surreal.”

The Diamonds will need Weston and her fellow defenders to be at their absolute best if they are to win their 12th world title – and fourth in a row – this month.

They know better than anyone just how tough this will be too, having had gold snatched away from them on home turf by England with the final play of the 2018 Commonwealth Games last April.

Yet, despite possibly having the chance to exact the perfect revenge on the Vitality Roses this time round, Weston says her team are solely focusing on making themselves the best they can be.

And with so many Australian individuals and teams enjoying sporting success right now, she wants her side to be right in the mix to help increase the sport’s popularity Down Under.

She says: “The profile of netball in Australia has risen dramatically since the last World Cup which was held in Sydney in 2015.

“We had the Matildas at the football World Cup, we’ve got both the women’s and men’s cricket teams over here in the UK and we also have a rugby World Cup later in the year so I think it’s a big year full stop for representative teams.

“We’re just delighted to be part of that broader Australian sporting landscape too.”

Described as ‘highly intelligent’ by Diamonds and Vixens team-mate Liz Watson, Weston also works for Deloitte having graduated with a Bachelor of Commerce (BCom) from the University of Melbourne.

Her talents extend far beyond the netball court too.

She is somewhat of a social media star alongside being a highly passionate environmentalist, working as an ambassador for the Sports Environmental Alliance, something that has been instilled in her from an early age.

“Sustainability is something my family has always been very interested in,” she says.

“My dad’s family comes from country Victoria, we have a walnut farm up there and we have some sheep, some goats as well and it’s all very sustainable.

“It’s always been something I’ve been interested in and it’s quite topical, seeing the impact sport can have with such a large number of people and with sporting events, making them less wasteful in terms of one-use products and all those sorts of things.

“It’s a way that we can continue to move forward without leaving our earth in ruins.”

The aforementioned walnut farm also plays a part in another of her big interests – baking.

And even though her team will be following a pre-planned meal routine during their stay in England, Weston is hoping to be able to add one or two of her treats to the menu.

“I did make an apple crumble a couple of days ago when we made a team dinner,” she proudly states.

“My cooking skills leave a little bit to the imagination but I do think I’m quite a confident baker. I’m really edging for that spot in the Great British Bake Off at one stage!

“That farm-to-table mentality is something I’m really interested in and think it’s really great.”

Weston may not be the most stereotypical role model but in terms of personality, morals and skill she is the ultimate professional athlete.