What about us ?

“What about Us?”

Franchises such as the Darling Downs Panthers and Northern Rays play such a crucial role in building Country Netball. Whilst both franchises struggle in regard to their place on the ladder, it is certainly not through lack of talent, lack of commitment or lack of management. There are deeper underlying issues that affects many regional and rural sporting communities across the country.

Sport brings us together. It’s about Family. It’s about inclusion. It’s about our community identity and sense of pride. It’s about opportunity. It’s about physical and mental wellbeing.

By having this opportunity to compete in the Sapphire and Ruby Series, it provides hope, purpose and direction. We are driven by passion, but sometimes passion just isn’t quite enough. The loss of the Marlins, Claws and Wide Bay sent shock waves through regional netball. It seemed to deepen the perceived opportunity divide between the country and metropolitan netball. That's why the Panthers and the Rays are so important to the ongoing future of any competition. The loss of either side would represent a catastrophic loss to the regions and most likely see an entire generation of talent look at other rising female sporting codes.

“The Wagga Effect” was a thesis put out in 2005 by Dr. Damien Farrow and Bruce Abernathy. It argues “regional cities with certain population sizes produced a disproportionately high number of high performance athletes due to children having more space for play and sport, being exposed to a range of sports and often participating with adults due to limited number of competitions”. There were many examples of sporting heroes who came from regional cities and towns. Not many elite netballers from Queensland on that list!

In my humble opinion, we are not doing enough to support our rising stars in regional and rural Queensland in Netball. There needs to be more opportunity for talent identification and player development opportunities. We still have this gaping hole with the massive drop-out rate of 14 – 17 years old, many of whom may not have had the opportunity, the parent support, the financial support (not just fees, but the expense of travel to various destinations) or mentoring available to them to make informed decisions on participation in sport. Over the years, I have coached quite a few kids who had the potential to go a long way, but it’s teaching them about the dedication, and sacrifices that need to be made; life skills really. We, as a community, owe it to this kids to get them a shot at a fair and level playing field.

Netball QLD has the “Diamond Spirit Program”, to engage Indigenous girls in Far North Queensland. I 100% support this program and all it embodies. The South East Corner has highly accredited coaches sprinkled throughout the Franchises and Associations, schools who employ Elite Players and well respected coaches to run their programs, competitive and strong QPL Zones, strong club competitions, clinics, one on one sessions……ample opportunity for players to pick and choose ways to get opportunity and development, even more if you’re cashed up and happy to pay!

But what about us?

All the regional and rural areas in the middle. Not quite near enough to Far North Queensland, and not quite near enough to Brisbane. Throughout my years playing and coaching in Queensland, I have seen many programs come and go that promoted development in regional areas. Unfortunately they go more often than they come.

 

I was involved with QLD Regional Academy a number of years ago. It was a fantastic opportunity for me as a coach to start learning about holistic elite athlete development and gain coaching experience and mentoring. I did it for 3 years, and I loved it. I had all the support in the world, and made great friends with coaches from other regions. It was 40 hours of contact time with each athlete (and guess what the age bracket was…..14-17!), then we all headed to Brisbane for a 3 day camp; over 200 players from all the Regions. The girls got to be coached by the High Performance and Elite Coaches; coaches were mentored by the likes of Jill McIntosh. It really was a positive experience that allowed a fair and level playing field for all athletes regardless of where they came from.

 

It was a Netball Australia Program, the “Dare to Develop A Diamond”…….look, it’s like anything, phases and fads come and go, maybe the program was too structured, maybe it cost too much money, maybe it didn’t seem to be paying dividends. I’m not sure. But what I do know is that by removing the Academy it has left a gaping hole for development and opportunity. We had kids from Roma, Surat, Injune, Goondiwindi, Chinchilla, Stanthorpe, Warwick, Lockyer Valley, as well as local players. Instead of that 40 contact hours (this included full day or 2 day camps in our own region, as well as one on one sessions), these players now have to travel into Toowoomba for better opportunities to play and train on a more regular basis. It significantly reduced my ability to tap into areas for player identification due to geographical location.

 

I recall Kim Jenner at those camps. Being from Townsville, would she have got the opportunities she got if it wasn’t for Regional Academy? How many “potentials” have slipped through the cracks? The last few years of observing the State Underage Squads, I noticed very few “Country” athletes. The ones that were there I believe had all the ability and potential of the city contenders…..but they lacked the edge and refinement that playing in tough competition brings.

 

I have the best memories as a teenager attending the Queensland Country Carnival. Every year we would bus to places like Rockhampton and Bundaberg and compete against all the other country associations. It was a like a State Age for the Country. Sadly, somewhere along the way it became obsolete as well….

 

As a Region, we’ve tried to fill the hole by introducing Future Panthers. We have increased our Cubs age to 17 to be more inclusive. We introduced the Meg Englart Cup in 2019. It was a replica of the weekly QPL Zone format. A needs analysis was conducted by the Darling Downs Regional Committee. We were really pulling up short with regards to competition options for the players coming out of State Age. The QPL structure at the time was in 2 cluster weekend formats, which had cut down to 1 cluster in the second year of competition. Honestly, in my opinion, this was a waste of time and resources. The teams that played may as well have just played in our Inter District Competition. This was not how a “Premier” competition should look. My frustrations have continued with Meg Englart Cup. There is a real need for this type of competition.

 

I look at our Highfields Representative Program. We have developed a high performance environment of commitment, high work ethic, pride and a winning mentality. We strive for Division 1. Our kids finish State Age, then what do they have? A select few get thrust into the Panthers environment, some are selected in Futures. But where is their competition? They train and train, but where do they play? This is why we lose so many. A number of years ago I took Mia’s State Age team to Brisbane every Friday night to play in the SEQ Competition. We still talk fondly of this experience. Over two years, the growth of the team was phenomenal, because they were hit with it week in and week out. The travel took its toll, but it was worth it. This is why I tried to emulate a similar format here in our Region with MEC. Build from the base up. Unfortunately it makes it very disappointing and deflating for me to see a very small number support it. I had looked at the option of taking Future Panthers Teams to play in a Brisbane Zone, but did not want to rob the competition of these rising stars. We need to keep that competitive and winning culture thriving, which will ultimately lead into the Panthers environment. I will continue to explore ways to support our players’ aspirations. I am now at a crossroads……do I sacrifice the players for the sake of the Region, or sacrifice the Region for the sake of the players?  If I try things, and they don’t work, I’m ok with that, because at the end of the day, as the great Michael Jordan said, “I can accept failure, everyone fails at something. But I cannot accept not trying”. In all facets of life, our best lessons are learnt through failure. We dust ourselves off, and we try something else.

 

ETP (Emerging Talent Program) was introduced by NQ a couple of years ago. It offers player/coach/umpire development, and serves as identification for potential State Underage Players. It hasn’t quite hit the mark, the uptake wasn’t as anticipated, as the program was very limited in content. We have seen the program reduce from 2 day sessions in 2019 to a 1 day session in 2020. There’s a carrot dangling to be selected in the Panthers 16U for State Titles. A 3 day event in the back half of the year, with limited team training opportunities. Yes, it’s a great concept….but where are OUR players getting the competition and match play required to compete against the Metropolitan Regions?? 2019 saw disappointing results for our 16 Panthers, a team mainly comprised of Division 1 level State Age players. Our lack of competition opportunity proves why there is such a massive jump from a previous winning culture and mentality. I am fairly certain our other Country Franchises are feeling the same pinch. We are failing our players, and that needs to change.

 

I was fortunate to be the Coach of the QLD 18 Years Country Team in 2018 – another one hit wonder!! We played a series of 3 games against City. There was so much hype and positive energy around this series. I absolutely loved being in camp with the Country girls. We had so much pride, and so much passion. The intent and purpose was to select the QLD 19 Years Squad from this. Unfortunately for those girls, any player who was in the QLD 19 or 17 Years from the year before was automatic entry into the squad, so there were probably only 4 or 5 places up for grabs in the squad anyway. Then that was it. Never heard of it again!

 

My biggest gripe of all in recent years, is the removal of the 19 Years State League. R.I.D.I.C.U.L.O.U.S decision. If the Brisbane kids are overloaded, then leave them out of it. Make it a Country series. Include the Panthers, and all the Regions from Wide Bay and up. Other than Rays with a Sapphire license, and us with Ruby, all those other Regions have nothing. Wide Bay and Rocky are expected to travel to the Sunny Coast. Cairns and Mackay to Townsville.

 

How about we develop a 19 Years Country Conference. All our QPL Zones in the country are cluster, and not quite hitting the mark for players who want more. We are in desperate need of more competition, good competition, so that we can start retaining that age group we are losing because the opportunities are so limited. Give more regional coaches the opportunities, more umpires the opportunities! Most importantly, strengthen our pathways.

 

Many other sports support the “Country” element with different opportunities for regional and rural players.

  • AFL. AFL Victoria Country Championships

  • Basketball. Australian Country Junior Basketball Cup (ACJBC). The first cup was held in 1985. In 2014, there were 64 teams with more than 700 players, coaches and officials taking part including teams from Western Australia, Tasmania and New Zealand in the under 14, 16 and 18 age groups. 

  • Cricket. Australia Country Cricket Championships. The Championships have proved to be a successful breeding ground for Australian test players. 

  •  Rugby League. NSW Country Rugby League Regional Championships. Covers Under 14, 16 and 18 age groups

  • Rugby Union. National Rugby Championship. Includes country teams from New South Wales and Queensland

  • Tennis. Australian Made Foundation Cup. Cup provides young children from rural and regional Australia the opportunity to compete nationally. The event forms part of the Australian Made Summer of Tennis (https://www.clearinghouseforsport.gov.au/knowledge_base/sport_participation/community_participation/sport_in_rural_and_regional_australia

 

Furthermore, NSW has 11 Regional Academies; Victoria has 6; Western Australia has 9 (State Government invested 3 million dollars over 3 years); South Australia has 9. Queensland hasn’t been the powerhouse it once was across the Elite Programs in netball for a couple of years. I believe the lack of development opportunities for 14-17 year olds, particularly in the country, could be a contributing factor.

 

That disproportionately large number of high performance athletes in regional areas? We owe it to ourselves and our players to see more netballers from Queensland on that list!!

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