Seven up for Oz

Julie Welch sees Australia waltz to victory in netball's World Championship

AT THE National Indoor Arena, Birmingham, Australia were about to play South Africa in the final of the ninth World Netball Championship. The big question was, who on earth, on a day like yesterday, would have gone indoors to watch 14 athletes from faraway play out a game that in this country rates fewer column inches than Scrabble?

Plenty, as it turned out. Lasting two weeks, it had been said that this tournament was a tad too long and on some days the women were playing to the sort of numbers that would have closed a theatrical production. But the finalists pulled a crowd, lots of whom were sitting behind walls of green and gold balloons. You may have passed through Earl's Court yesterday and been reminded of a ghost town. Every Kiwi and Oz in Britain seemed to have arrived in Brum to watch Australia beat South Africa. "It's a national sport over there," said the nice woman from the tournament office. "They're like Manchester United."

This is because, Down Under, real men play netball. They have their own leagues. Netballers of both genders are stopped in the street, slapped on the back and asked for autographs. Of the eight previous world championships which have been held since 1963, Australian women had won six and finished runners-up twice. Now they have won seven. It would be almost boring, except they are so brilliant to watch.

It is usually New Zealand who run them close, but this year the Kiwis have had to settle for bronze. They beat England in the third and fourth place play-off on Friday night.

South Africa played in the first two world championships before disappearing into the tunnel of apartheid. In the stands here they had a bunch of supporters who sang those songs which get you in the back of the throat.

In the Milo championships last February, Australia beat them fluently in all three encounters, but the South Africans were the ones who came up with the star of this tournament. Irene Van Dyk is the youngest (23) and the tallest (190cm ) of the team and its highest scorer. She plucks the ball out of the air as if it has been waiting for her all its life. She was, as ever, marvellous yesterday but Australia were overwhelmingly the better team.

By the end of the first quarter they were 17-9 up, 31-23 ahead by the end of the second and 51-35 up after the third. In the fourth quarter, South Africa strung together four goals without reply but Australia were too far ahead for it to matter, and in the dying seconds their final goal went through the hoop to clinch it 68-48.

Afterwards, South Africa were defiantly sparky. "The last 25 minutes they really started moving in sync," said Debbie Hammon, their captain. "Those were beautiful fluid movements and I hope the crowd appreciated it because we did."

"It was a real thrill," said Michelle Fielke of Australia. "It never gets any less of a thrill. It's just brilliant."

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