England's netball whitewash over Australia can signal new era

By Jessica CreightonBBC Sport
'Belief in ourselves' led to success - Pamela Cookey

England's victory for a 3-0 series whitewash of Australia may have astonished thousands of jubilant fans at the National Indoor Arena in Birmingham.

But an unprecedented treble against the reigning world champions was no surprise to England head coach Anna Mayes.

"This series win has been a long time coming," she told BBC Sport.

"If you look at the group of players that went to the 2012 World Championship, there was a real belief that they could push on as number three in the world."

Before the series, England had only managed to beat the world's best team twice in more than 60 attempts.

But now England are in a prime position to challenge the power of Australia and New Zealand - ranked second in the world - at the top.

The England Netball Associationexternal-link have more money to spend and more players to choose from than ever before.

In the past four years, the number of people taking to the courts has risen by 34% to 159,300. As a result, funding agency Sport England will invest an additional £6m in the sportexternal-link at the grassroots and elite level.

But Mayes, a composed figure at courtside, does not want to get carried away.

"The funding definitely helps but just because we get additional funding, it doesn't mean we're guaranteed results," she said. "We can't just sit back and not do anything with it.

"It's pressure because if we don't perform and we don't hit those targets we'll have our funding taken away."

Beating Australia in a series suggests major progress but consistency is paramount to meeting the targets set by Sport England.

"We've looked at all disciplines within the sport - strength and conditioning training, psychology, nutrition and the way we analyse the game," said Mayes.

"We're trying to create an environment where players are training more. A year ago the players were looking a lot more tired because of that. I was asking more of them week in, week out.

"At the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi, we were bitterly disappointed to lose out to Australia by a couple of goals in the semi-final. That cut deep and I didn't want to have that feeling again."

With the elite team challenging the world's best, the grassroots is also in good shape.

An additional 25,000 womenexternal-link are playing once a week in the 16-25 age group, showing that often hard-to-target school leavers are continuing to play the game.

Country-wide campaigns such as Back to Netballexternal-link and High 5external-link seek to engage women and girls while highlighting the low-cost, pick-up-and-play nature of the sport and making it easy for people to get involved.

This is without being part of the high-profile Olympic programme that many other minority sports benefited from last summer.

"The development department have done some excellent work," said Mayes, who has coached the national team since November 2011. "The increase in participation has been phenomenal.

"Things like Talent ID [a selection system that identifies and develops top-performing athletes] are getting more people into the sport and ensures more people are training under great conditions. It means we've got quality coming through.

"All credit to our national academy programme too. We've done some fantastic work with our under-21s so in terms of the calibre of athletes coming through it's better than ever."

Pamela Cookey, who captained England in the series whitewash and earned her 80th cap in the process, has witnessed the progress the squad has made.

"This is the first time everything has gelled - the coaching staff, the players, everything is in place," said Cookey who made her debut in 2004.

"The Sport England money will help us get even more people into the sport and then, once you lift their ability and standard, it gives the coaching staff a greater pool of talent to pick from.

"In the end, we'll become like the Australians and three or four people vying for one position. It's a process."

While the Australian players compete in a paid, full-time professional league, the England players all have second jobs or are in education. They do not get money for playing in the domestic league, while England Netball simply cover expenses.

Women's football in England has benefited from a more professional structure in recent years with the birth of the Women's Super League.external-link Mayes hopes for a similar approach in netball.

"It's a challenge that England players aren't paid a wage and have to hold down full-time or part-time jobs or education," she said.

"I hope in the next five years there will be a semi-professional league. The England players get great support from Sport England.

"But the players that play in just the domestic league, who are knocking on the door for England, need their standard raised to improve our squad's breadth and depth."

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