A week after its official opening, the Netball World Cup finally got started in Liverpool the way it traditionally ends.
Australia’s fiercely contested one goal victory over New Zealand applied the defibrillator to a tournament that had been without much of a competitive pulse during a week of mostly one-sided group games.
Euphemisms had been used to justify the ritual humiliations as the competition heavyweights put the minnows to the sword — “solid warm up”, “great acclimatisation”, “wonderful learning experience”, “working their way into the tournament”.
But it was only when the game’s greatest rivals the Diamonds and Silver Ferns went bib-to-bib that what should have been an engrossing ten days of netball gained any meaningful competitive edge or media traction.
Otherwise, in Olympic terms, the preliminary stages of this World Cup had been far too much Eric the Eel and far too little Michael Phelps.
Before meeting New Zealand, Australia had won their five matches against Northern Ireland, Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka, Barbados and Malawi by an average 57 points with the closest result the 73-37 thriller against Zimbabwe.
In matches in which the five tournament heavyweights Australia, New Zealand, England, South Africa and Jamaica did not play each other the closest result was the Silver Ferns’ 64-45 victory over Malawi.
This does not discount what the smaller netball nations have brought the tournament.
From emerging team such as Singapore, Uganda and Samoa chosen from tiny participation bases there were many great stories about players striving to compete against the world’s best despite miniscule support from governments and sponsors — even by the serially iniquitous standards of women’s sport funding.
Zimbabwe’s “GoFundMe Girls” used the crowd sourcing website to underwrite a much worthier sporting enterprise than Israel Folau’s suspended account — allowing amateur athletes to fulfil their dreams by competing on a global stage.
But in a competitive sense about the best that could be said of the games pitting established nations against ill-equipped battlers was that, unlike the plucky Eric the Eel, none of Australia’s overmatched opponents was in danger of drowning.
This imbalance prompted Australian coach Lisa Alexander to acknowledge after her team’s 99-24 victory over Sri Lanka that the competition’s format needed to be amended.
“I love playing Sri Lanka and it’s really important to them but at the end of the day, it’s not necessarily conducive to great television watching,” said Alexander. “We might need to look at that.”
Alexander would not have made that comment lightly. There is no stronger advocate for the game’s growth than the Australian coach who has travelled extensively to promote netball’s globalisation.
But with the Netball World Cup competing for media space in England with cricket’s World Cup and women’s Ashes, Wimbledon, the British Open golf and the British Grand Prix — as well as the usual football codes back home — Alexander will also be well aware an array of mostly lopsided lead-up games did not provide much cut through for the sport as a whole.
Just one example: Australian Courtney Bruce’s wonderfully robust defence in a game heavily skewed toward attackers should have been showcased to non-traditional netball viewers against meaningful opposition well before her last gasp intercept capped a player of the match performance against the Silver Ferns.
As it was, the Diamonds fine-turning in the early round massacres only really captured the attention of devotees.
Netball is far from the only sport to have agonised about the twin purpose of peak tournaments to cater for elite competition while also aiding global development.
Despite the enormous success of the men’s cricket World Cup, there are still those who lament the exclusion of many associate nations in favour of a limited 10 team system that provided more competitive group games but less fairy tales.
Providing such balance is becoming more problematic for women’s sport with the competitive gap widening between those nations that are belatedly funding female sports programs and those lagging behind for financial or even ideological and religious reasons.
While long-time powerhouse the USA won the FIFA Women’s World Cup, the most noticeable trend of the tournament was the sharp improvement of central European nations (the Scandinavians were ahead of the curve) who have relatively recently formed competitive women’s leagues and spent more money on national programs.
Similarly, the Australian women’s cricket team appears to have stolen a march on their arch-rival England with Cricket Australia’s significant wage increases for elite women and the growth of the WBBL creating more virtual full-time players.
The Netball World Cup, like most other world championships, needs to operate on the “rising tide lifts all boats” principle and find ways to nourish new competitors while identifying its champion.
But as the Diamonds and Silver Ferns fought out yet another nail-biter, you couldn’t help feeling the first week of this all-too-brief tournament had been wasted.