Why England are in debt to a granny

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The Independent Online
If England finish among the top teams at the World Netball Championships, which begin in Birmingham tomorrow, three old ladies can take much of the credit.

Actually, that's pretty insulting to Pat Watson and Jillean Hipsey. Though both are way past the traditional sell-by date for competitive netball, they are playing as well as any 20-year-old. Jillean, 45, still represents the county champions, Essex Met, while Pat, 47, is England Under-21 coach. But they concede that their glittering careers (both are former England captains) and the disproportionate influence of their club on national netball are largely down to a 70-year-old grandmother.

Alice Hallmark only stopped playing a couple of years ago. Under her tutelage, the New Cambell club, based in Dagenham, has bred a bevy of internationals. It is the best side in the country, unbeaten for the past two years in the National Clubs Championship. The club supplies several of the Essex Met side, while three of the England squad (it should have been four, but one was injured) for the World Championships, which continue for two weeks at the National Indoor Arena, are New Cambellers. Two other internationals learnt their craft at the club before moving out of the area. Some record, huh?

Pat, who is Alice's daughter, is continuing the family tradition by coaching the club teams (it now has eight senior and six junior sides). Though she's been involved with New Cambell since her mother set up a netball team at the youth club 35 years ago, Pat still doesn't quite know why the club is a hotbed of netball talent. It could be the truism about success attracting good players; it could be the coaching quality allied to PE skills (Pat, like her mother, is a PE teacher); it could even be that the club play outdoors. "Most netball games are indoors, but we play outside in all weathers, from blazing sunshine to hail and snow," Pat says. "It certainly toughens you up."

She represented Essex Under-21s when she was 16; was a member of the England Under-23 squad when she was 19 and, from 1961 to 1980, played regularly for England, with time off to bear three children (all boys, she says ruefully). She captained England from 1976 to 1980, and helped to inflict a rare defeat on New Zealand, one of the two premier sides in the world. "We even came close to beating Australia. With five minutes to go we were leading, but eventually lost by three goals," she recalls.

Her place as England captain was taken by Jillean, from Chelmsford, England's most capped international. Between 1978 and 1987, Jillean notched 100 caps and only retired because: "I felt there were other, younger players who should come through. I was still enjoying it, but I thought it was a good idea to retire before people chucked me out!" In her case, retirement is a relative word. She continues to play for club and county, and last weekend she represented Eastern Counties in a practice match at Crystal Palace for the newly arrived New Zealand team.

This was not one of those token gestures made to a long-serving stalwart. Although all the other players were more than 20 years younger, Jillean was in the side on ability. Her experience and positional sense made her look as good as any of the New Zealanders. It's nothing to do with height, either. Naomi Campbell in flip-flops would still tower over Jillean's 5ft 7in (and Pat is only an inch taller). Unlike basketball, where giraffes rule, netball is a game for antelopes. Art, acceleration and agility will always outwit altitude.

The BBC is filming several days of the World Championships, and just a few minutes' viewing will shock those whose only memory of netball is girls in short skirts playing catch. For a non-contact sport, it can be pretty tough. "I love it because it's competitive, and it's a great team game," Jillean says. "But I think it has other appeals. People like running, throwing and catching a ball, and there are not many games where you can do that. Also, it can be played at any skill level. Even if you are big and fat, you can still play goal-shooter."

Netball has been good to her and Pat. The sport is strongest in the West Indies, New Zealand and Australia, which means the best international matches take place in exotic locations. "My husband has been very understanding, though on some tours I've been away for six weeks," Pat said. Surprisingly, the sport is not yet part of the Olympic programme, though it has been played in England since 1895. But it looks probable that it will be on the itinerary in 2000 in Australia.

A record 27 nations compete for the world title over the next two weeks, and more than 100,000 spectators are expected to attend. Such a turnout reflects soaring interest. The All-England Netball Association now has nearly 4,000 affiliated clubs and 53,000 registered players. In turn, this has made it easier to attract sponsors. "This is exactly what we need," Pat says. "The trouble is, at the moment we are amateurs trying to be professionals."

The Peoples Phone World Netball Championships, 15-29 July, National Indoor Arena, Birmingham.