The tournament that put netball on centre stage


It was the tournament that Vicki Wilson said put netball on the Australian sporting landscape.

team celebratesSo big was the public interest surrounding the final of the 1991 Netball World Cup between Australia and New Zealand, that the 10,050-strong crowd that packed inside the Sydney Entertainment Centre included then Prime Minister Bob Hawke.

It was the first time an Australian Prime Minister had attended a female sporting event outside an Olympic Games and he was lavish in his praise of the spectacle produced by players from both teams.

Team captain Michelle den Dekker said the Final, which Australia won 53-52 in a thrilling finish, is still one of the most talked about games of netball.

“I do believe it showed the world that we had a sport that people really wanted to see more of,” den Dekker said.

Michelle leading team“It not only took netball, but women’s sport, to the next level.”

Current Queensland Firebirds’ coach Roselee Jencke, who came onto replace Keeley Devery at goal keeper, is remembered for an intercept she plucked in the final minute to prevent the Silver Ferns from levelling the match.

“There were about four or five minutes to go when we realised we were down and we all had the same thought of `this is it’ and `’there’s no way we’re not going to win this world championship’,” den Dekker said.

“Even though Rosie’s intercept was beautiful timing, we really did control the last four minutes of the game. The ball went down the court within three passes and the game was over.”

Wilson said there was a special feeling attached to the entire tournament, beginning when the Australian team got together for the first time with coach Joyce Brown.

01072015141736-0001“We had champagne and strawberries,” Wilson said. “It was only a very small glass but Joyce wanted to celebrate our achievement of being the best players in the country and playing in a world championship at home.

“It wasn’t until that point that it really sunk in that `this is really special, this is important’.”

The 1991 world titles enjoyed unprecedented daily media coverage with the final being shown live on ABC Television.

“Netball Australia put a lot of work into publicity and media coverage. They worked very, very hard in promoting the event and raising awareness of the game and the world championships,” Wilson said.

“We were getting back page coverage and in the sports pages on a daily basis and there were action photos. That was something that had really been lacking in the coverage of the sport. It was rewarding to actually get acknowledged as fine athletes and for the sport to get the recognition it thoroughly deserved.”

30072015125541-0001Wilson recalls being told afterwards that such was the interest in the final, the match telecast cut into the scheduled broadcast time of the ABC’s news bulletin.

“It was an amazing spectacle and a game people talked about for the weeks following,” Wilson said.

“People still talk about that game. The interest that it generated really did create the foundation for where the game is today.”

Shooter Jenny Borlase said a simple walk by Brown on match day gave the team the confidence to know they could win the Final.

“She walked so confidently towards our bus and in a very loud voice Joyce said to us `’it’s going to be a great day girls’. That’s always stuck in my mind,” Borlase said.

“That’s an indication of the type of leadership that Joyce had and we were all very fortunate to learn from her.30072015125731-0001

“The way in which we won the game, that’s one of my most vivid memories and then the celebrations afterwards. On reflection it probably becomes more significant. At the time I probably didn’t realise the enormity of it.”

Sharon Finnan wasn’t part of the original team but was called into the side by Brown after vice-captain Sue Kenny broke her foot in the semi-final against Jamaica.

“I planned on going out that evening after the game, however my dad convinced me to come home in case there was a slight chance I could get called into the team having been named as a reserve,” Finnan said.

“The next morning I had a call very early in the morning from Joyce telling me to pack my bag and come and join the team for the final against New Zealand.

Sharon Finnan with Bob Hawke at 1991 World Champs Sydney“You could imagine I was feeling rather nervous but also excited to be a part of the team. I didn’t get to take the court but it was an amazing feeling being a part of team and celebrating the win.”

A picture of her receiving a hug from Prime Minister Hawke is one of Finnan’s treasured memories from the day.

It wasn’t all serious stuff for the team. Carissa Tombs remembers Devery trying to lighten the mood in the tense changerooms before the Final.

“Keeley decided to conduct an old school aerobics session to calm the nerves,” Tombs recalls. “It certainly worked as we were all laughing hysterically. I’m not sure that won the game for us but it definitely helped calm everyone.”

Carissa Tombs with Bob HawkeTombs also remembers Catriona Wagg making a memorable entrance on court when the players were introduced pre-game.

“Full house, lights dimmed, music roaring, crowd screaming. One-by-one we are called out, the anticipation built with every name,” Tombs said.

“Catriona runs on waving with a big smile. Somehow she doesn’t see the sponsor’s signage, stumbles, almost falls, regains her footing and carries on as if nothing happened. I personally thought it was hilarious but knew I needed to keep it together.”

The legacy the 1991 world championships left on the sport was profound. It included the formation of a national league in 1996, which has subsequently transformed into the ANZ Championship, and an overall increase in participation numbers and awareness of netball across Australia.

“Netball’s image, from then on, really did change in public support and appreciation. It (the tournament) really did stop the nation,” Wilson said.

This is the final instalment in our fortnightly series of tales from Australia’s past Netball World Cup campaigns.

Click here to keep up-to-date with all the news, results and broadcast details around the Diamonds’ quest to win the 2015 title.