Australia’s long journey to historic title

1963WT_aThe sight of 10 young women exercising on the ship’s deck may have surprised passengers on board the SS Canberra sailing to England in June of 1963.

But that was the daily routine for the Australian team as they sailed across the world on their way to the inaugural World Netball Championships (now Netball World Cup).

Captain Joyce Brown and coach Lorna McConchie insisted the team was up on deck every morning at 6.30am for a 90-minute training session.

Wilma Shakespear, who was the second youngest player in the team, said initially those sessions were held later in the day when the other passengers were out and about mingling on the decks – until she hurt her ankle.

“There were people playing deck quoits and I collided with a passenger and I was off my leg until we got to England,” Shakespear recalled.

team shot“After that there was much tighter control in what we were doing. We started to come out early in the morning to train. I remember there were a few balls lost over the side during drills.”

It took the team three-and-a-half weeks to sail to England, which included a stopover in Sri Lanka – then known as Ceylon.

“We had lots of fun times on board. We were very popular – there was lots of invitations to drinks with the captain and his friends,” Shakespear said.

“I was the first member of my family to go overseas and I just thought it was going to be a great adventure and I felt incredibly proud being part of an Australian team.

“But if anybody said to me these days we’ll take a national team away on a boat I’d say there’s no way I’d ever do it.”

The 1963 world championships were played at the Chelsea College of PE in Eastbourne with 11 countries taking part. The tournament was also played under a different set of rules that Shakespear and many of her teammates had been used to in Australia.

“The reason it had taken a long time to get the game international was because there were different sets of rules around the world,” Shakespear said.

“As a defender, we weren’t allowed to have a jump at the shot so we had to develop a new skill and we had a magic coach who got footage of how defenders actually attacked the shot.

“We played about half a dozen matches once we got to England before we went to Eastbourne and those games were important for us. As a defender, we’d been wanting to have a go at these shooters for a long time and now we could do it legally.

1963WT_b“After we came back the international rules were adopted in each country.”

Australia went through the tournament undefeated from its 10 matches to create history by winning the first world title. Shakespear said even back then, she realised the significance of what

“One of the highlights was at the presentations they lined up a walk of honor with all the flags of the countries that competed and, as the winning team, we got to walk through that,” Shakespear said.

“That was something quite special and I thought it was terrific.”

Shakespear also coached Australia’s 1971 and ’79 world championship winning teams.

Recording seven Test caps, Shakespear went on to make her biggest contribution to the sport off the court, in High Performance. She has been a key figure in elite netball programs for 30 years, and was inducted into the Australian Netball Hall of Fame in 2010.

She now lives in Canada with her husband Peter, who works for Rowing Canada.

Every fortnight leading into this year’s Netball World Cup we’ll feature a story from one of Australia’s past campaigns. Stay tuned to for the next installment.