She was named the world’s best player in her sport in 2014 and will captain England in the forthcoming World Cup, yet Geva Mentor is more likely to be recognised walking along the street in Melbourne than in her home town of Bournemouth. And given that she stands 6ft 2in tall, with her long hair in eye-catchingly intricate braids, she is hardly an inconspicuous figure.
This relative anonymity is easily explained: Mentor’s sport is netball. Ask the average sports fan on these shores what they know about netball and the conversation probably will not extend beyond PE lessons at school, where it was usually played outdoors whatever the weather, often under duress.
It is an image problem that has dogged English netball for years. This week, though, things may change. Since netball’s World Cup was first contested in 1963, it has been dominated by Australia and New Zealand. Yet in the 2015 tournament, which begins in Sydney on Friday, England believe they are ready to break the Antipodean stranglehold.
Were they to do so, Mentor believes, it could transform the sport in this country, opening the eyes of sceptical sports fans, banishing preconceptions and generating new popularity.
“At the top level, it is a different game from the one people might remember from school,” Mentor says, speaking to The Independent during a break in a pre-World Cup training camp in Loughborough. “It is a lot faster, a lot more physical and fiercely competitive. It is end to end, with defence rapidly turning into attack.
“My mum used to tell me how much she hated it at school and how all she remembers was being out in the freezing cold and hardly getting the ball. But she now appreciates its athleticism and how it is ever changing in terms of speed and aggressiveness on court.
“It is still a non-contact sport. But the umpires have had to adapt to allow more because you don’t want them blowing the whistle every time two powerful girls are going for a 50-50 ball.
“Female sports have always faced a challenge to get attention in the UK, yet our teams are often among the best in the world – cricket, football, rugby. It is the same for us in netball, where we have shown we can beat the best sides.
“That’s why this World Cup is so important. If we can bring home that gold medal it gives us the platform to announce to the public in England that we are here, we mean business, we are good and that netball deserves more coverage.”
Mentor can talk about the game’s potential with some authority. As the goalkeeper for the Melbourne Vixens in the ANZ Championship, a semi-professional league that includes the top five teams in both Australia and New Zealand, she sees netball on prime-time television and newspaper back pages every week.
“In Australia and New Zealand it is very different. The Vixens play at the Hisense Arena, part of the Melbourne Park complex where the Australian Open tennis takes place. The capacity is 10,500 and for most games we’ll have a crowd of six or seven thousand people; for big games and finals it sells out.
“New Zealand is probably even ahead of Australia. They say the turning point for them came a few years ago when a televised rugby international had to be cancelled and a lot of guys found themselves watching New Zealand versus Australia at netball instead.
“It was physical, goal for goal and exciting. The audience liked what they were seeing and that really elevated the sport. Nowadays, the Silver Ferns, the national netball team, are as well known as the All Blacks rugby stars.”
Compared with the game in Britain, where the netball Superleague is covered on Sky Sports but where a couple of thousand spectators is considered a good turnout, it is a different world. Mentor, who previously played for Team Bath and Surrey Storm, has not been part of it since 2008, the launch year of the ANZ Championship, when she was invited to play for Adelaide Thunderbirds.
An outstandingly able player, combining her height and ability to read the game with a prodigious leap, she joined the Vixens in 2011 and in 2014 was named the world’s best player by a panel of experts assembled by The Guardian newspaper, based on performances at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games, where England were fourth, as well as international matches and ANZ Championships games.
One of the experts commented on Mentor’s ability “to create unthinkable turnover without managing to foul her opponent, and make it look effortless in the process, a clear master of her craft”.
Tracey Neville, appointed the interim England netball coach in March, named Mentor as captain when she announced her World Cup squad in June. Now 30 and a full international since she was 16, with 105 caps, Mentor described it as “a great honour” and set her sights on becoming “one of the best captains this team has had”.
Excellence in sport, though, is in Mentor’s genes. Her father, Greg, played football and cricket on the Caribbean island of St Lucia before turning to kick-boxing in England. Her mother, Yvonne, a former county level tennis player, is a qualified coach in many sports, while her younger brother, Raoul, played competitive basketball in the United States. When not playing netball, Geva, a former UK junior trampolining champion, is as at home on a horse as in a kayak.
Her parents fostered in her a spirit of adventure, too, putting her on a plane to visit friends in Iceland when she was just seven years old and sending her to New Zealand as a teenager to work on a ranch. After those experiences, moving to Australia as a 23-year-old hardly fazed her. Engaged to an Australian, she has applied for dual citizenship and plans to stay Down Under.
Mentor is one of five members of the England side playing in the ANZ, which has helped to raise the standard. In the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow last year, England were agonisingly close to reaching the final for the first time, beaten by a single goal by New Zealand in the semi-finals, having lost by the same margin to Australia in the pool matches.
“It was heartbreaking,” Mentor said. “But those performances gave us great confidence. The self-belief and the fitness are there and the key now is to execute our skills consistently, keep our error rate down and take our opportunities.
“Winning a tournament is a different challenge but we beat Australia 3-0 in a Test series here and won a Test in New Zealand only last year, so we know we can do it. But we are fed up with just talking about it – now we want to go out and prove it.”
England’s World Cup begins against Scotland on Friday in Pool B, followed by matches against Jamaica on Saturday and Samoa on Sunday.
The top two from each of four pools progress to a round-robin second stage, which will yield the four semi-finalists. The final will take place on Sunday 16 August.
2015 World Cup - How it works
Sixteen teams compete in the tournament in Sydney, taking place from Friday 7 August.
The teams are divided into four pools, the top two in each progressing to a second pool stage – the first eight – and the bottom two in each going through to a separate pool stage – the second eight.
First eight Played in round-robin format, the top two from each group progressing to semi-finals. The bottom two from each go into a play-off with the teams from the second eight.
Second eight Also played in round-robin, with all eight teams progressing to play-offs, where they are joined by bottom sides from the first eight. This decides the fifth to 16th placings.
Pool A Australia, New Zealand, Barbados, Trinidad & Tobago
Pool B England, Jamaica, Scotland, Samoa
Pool C Malawi, South Africa, Singapore, Sri Lanka
Pool D Fiji, Wales, Uganda, Zambia
Home nations’ pool fixtures
Friday England v Scotland, Wales v Fiji
Sat Jamaica v England, Samoa v Scotland
Sun Wales v Zambia, England v Samoa
10 Aug Uganda v Wales, Scotland v Jamaica
Television Sky Sports 3/4/5
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