It was not only the national team that struggled to keep up with their hosts in the first two Tests – the entire package laid out by England Netball far outweighed anything achieved in this country. Perhaps the most notable thing was the crowds, with more than 6 000 fans piling into the Wembley Arena on Wednesday to watch the hosts take an unassailable lead in the series.
The major difference between the two countries is that England has a professional national team and a top-flight pro league, while SA has neither.
Before the Proteas left for England, I caught up with vice-captain Bongiwe Msomi and team-mate Precious Mthembu, and after I had asked the questions I needed to compile my preview, they had a question of their own: Why is soccer, rugby and cricket regularly splashed on the back pages of newspapers, while netball coverage is reduced to briefs buried deep inside the same publications?
The answer is simple: Newspapers are focused on producing content of public interest, and it’s difficult for any sports fan to develop a passion for a sport that is hardly ever played at top-flight level.
While domestic soccer fans are inundated with the PSL and a multitude of cup competitions, rugby supporters have the Currie Cup and Super Rugby, and cricket lovers can rely on local T20, one-day and first-class competitions to whet their appetites between international fixtures and tournaments, netball fans have one local high-profile event a year the SA Championships, which lasts only one week and is not even televised.
Netball SA’s administrators are confident that Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula will follow through on his promise to back a professional league next year, with teams and structures already in place.
The likes of Msomi and Mthembu are desperate to play netball without worrying about holding down a full-time job after university, in order to pay their rent and put food on the table.
But it takes more than eager players who are willing to work hard, administrators who are making the effort to ensure the sport is run properly, and thousands of girls who are being developed at junior level.
There needs to be regular top-flight competition to draw in the public, and everything from quality players, coaches and officials, to extensive media coverage and sponsors, will fall into place.
For the sake of the Proteas, and every little girl who dreams of playing netball for a living, let’s hold thumbs that Mbalula makes good on his promise.
Perhaps then, when England next tour this country, we’ll have thousands of eager fans ready to fill the stands.