Almanack: New blood for the old network

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The Independent Online
RUGBY is not the only sport in which England commence their Home International Championship campaign against Scotland next weekend, as the nation's netball fans will know. But unlike their compatriots, England's netball players have never been defeated in domestic competition: not to win the Grand Slam would be, for them, unthinkable.

'We're placed fourth in the world at the moment,' says Betty Griffith of the All England Netball Association, whose distinctly Betjemanesque name is belied by her worldly grasp of sports marketing. The squad are confident that they can conquer the top three teams, Australia, New Zealand and Jamaica, in next year's world championships, to be held in Birmingham. 'We know we can do it,' says Betty, with iron-jawed determination.

With that target in mind, the bigwigs at Netball House have decided to use the Home Internationals to experiment. 'The coach is 'blooding' seven new players,' Betty explains, 'to get them used to the pressure of playing at international level.' Cynics might suggest that the 500 netball enthusiasts expected in Aberdeen for the England v Scotland game will provide little pressure compared with the baying hordes at Murrayfield: they should bear in mind the decibel potential of 8,000 schoolgirls indoors, as demonstrated at England's last Test Match at Wembley.

'It's horrendous,' Kendra Slawinski, the England captain, tells Almanack. 'You just can't hear yourself think. But as you get more experienced you get used to blocking them out.'

Netball seems undented by the rising popularity of basketball. Fans explain that in Britain the appeal of basketball is mainly to men, remark how soft it is to play with a backboard behind the net, and list the tactical difficulties imposed by netball's rules on who can move where, and who can score. Real devotees describe it as 'chess in the gym', and while the notion of Nigel Short in a pleated skirt is a trifle disturbing, the enthusiasm is unmistakable.

Kendra Slawinski recently confirmed netball's star status with an appearance on A Question of Sport. 'It was marvellous,' she enthuses, seemingly without tongue in cheek. 'It made all the

pavement-pounding worth it. It was a tremendous accolade for the sport.' Kendra, a PE teacher, reports that the next generation are already hooked. 'My kids at school just eat and sleep the game,' she says. 'They come in at break-time just to improve their passing and shooting.' Further recruits to the sport could come from an unlikelier source: in 1992 netball's governing body recognised that men could play the game as well.

(Photograph omitted)