Netball: Abby's habit given a new lease of life

England's Aussie-born poacher has made a remarkable recovery from illness. Nick Townsend talks to her
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The Independent Online

How Sven Goran Eriksson would be blessed with such a return from one of his strikers. Ask the England netball squad's goal attack Abby Teare what her international scoring record is from her 24 caps, and she responds: "Shall we say a thousand? I really don't know. On average I would expect to get between 20 and 30 goals a game."

The statuesque (nearly 6ft) Australian-born 28-year-old adds: "You try not to focus on your personal performance, though I do look at my percentages. I try to get up to the 90 per cent mark. At the moment, it's high 70s, so I want to improve on that."

It is envisaged that she, like other members of the England squad who are preparing for the Commonwealth Games next March in her home city, Melbourne, will benefit from the competition provided by a new eight-franchise Netball Superleague, which starts on Friday week.

But you can hardly blame a woman who has survived leukaemia for a certain lack of fascination in such minutiae. Teare, the daughter of English parents, was in her last year at high school, aged 16, and making good progress in her local netball team Down Under when she started feeling run down. "I had a blood test and my GP told me to go straight to the hospital. I was diagnosed with acute leukaemia. Of course, my parents were distraught, and I was in tears, but they don't allow you enough time to get scared. I had chemotherapy straight away, followed by radiation treatment. Within a month I was in remission."

She adds: "Fortunately, they caught it early, which made my chances of recovery quite high. I was quite fit, as well. That really helped. That form of the disease acts very quickly. They told me that if it had been diagnosed two weeks later, I would have died."

Although she made a full recovery, initially the experience played tricks with her mind. "When it happened, I was at my fittest," she recalls. "Trying to train back up again, to play at the élite level, I was actually quite scared. To get past that mental block was quite difficult. Of course, it was all in the mind."

Teare adds: "People can't believe I'm still here. In movies, it [leukaemia] is invariably portrayed as a death sentence. But there are people who have beaten it, and cancer in general, like [the cyclist] Lance Armstrong. That's why he's one of my idols."

Teare moved back after finishing university in Australia. She now fits in her netball training between her job as a product development manager for a company who work with the FA, RFU and ECB on merchandising deals.

A woman's game netball may be, but no one should imagine that it is genteel. Not at this level. "It's supposedly a non-contact sport, but you should see the bruises I get," says Teare. "Of course, you don't deliberately try and hurt anyone, but you are both aggressively going for the same ball. When I'm trying to shoot, the defenders are trying to get up my nose, and we have the equivalent of sledging. One player in particular, Vilimania Davu, the New Zealand goalkeeper, is much taller than me, and much wider, and although she's the nicest person you could come across off court, on it she's really competitive, and she talks at you all the time."

The franchise teams are based in Uxbridge, Bath, Loughborough, Liverpool, Sheffield, Hatfield, Gateshead and Cardiff, with names such as Brunel Hurricanes (Teare's team, based at the university of that name in Uxbridge) and Northern Thunder. They will all play most of their seven home-and-away fixtures prior to the Commonwealth Games. The league will restart in April, with play-offs and finals in May, to decide the first Netball Superleague champions.

England are currently ranked fourth in the world, behind New Zealand and Australia - who have dominated the world scene for many years principally because of their highly competitive domestic leagues - and Jamaica, but with the impetus of the new Superleague they are optimistic of claiming a medal in Melbourne.

It is also hoped to increase the profile of the sport by attracting large crowds. As Tracey Neville, who with a total of 75 England caps has only marginally fewer than her football international brother Gary, and certainly more than her other brother Phil, says: "Netball at this level is much more glamorous than people may imagine. You can't associate it with the schoolgirl game. These matches will feature 14 fit young girls who work out and train twice a day, six days a week."

Neville, 28, who combines playing netball with studying for a degree in nutrition and sports science at Chester College and running sessions in coaching education, is recovering from knee surgery, but will play for Northern Thunder. The Superleague players will wear something similar to a tennis dress, and although she accepts the "sexing-up" of a sport which was once more associated with St Trinian's than St Tropez, Neville adds, with a laugh: "When we have to start wearing as little as they do in beach volleyball, I think it'll be time for me to retire!"