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Serena Guthrie, the England captain, has revealed her shock at the “worrying” possibility of netball losing its Commonwealth Games status.
Last month, radical plans were unveiled to cut the number of compulsory sports afforded to Commonwealth Games hosts from 16 to just two, allowing host countries more flexibility over their programmes to make the event more attractive.
With athletics and swimming the sole sports that are set to be guaranteed protected status, there are fears that non-Olympic sports such as netball and squash could be squeezed out of the Commonwealth scene in favour of more modern alternatives.
It was not the sort of drama that Guthrie expected to return home to after the side’s historic series win on New Zealand soil at the end of September, which was their first victory in over 20 attempts.
“It’s obviously quite shocking and surprising,” Guthrie told Telegraph Sport. “The Commonwealth Games is one of our key competitions in our four-year cycle, so to potentially see that under threat is a bit worrying. We don’t know what’s going to happen with it yet, I suppose. I’m sure there will be so many other sports thinking: ‘Oh gosh, what does this mean for us?’”
Put simply, it could force netball - which has featured at every Commonwealth Games since 1995 - to adapt. The sport already has Fast Fives, a shortened and more intense format of the game, which has enjoyed varying levels of success.
But, in order to keep pace with more modern sports, such as surfing, skateboarding and climbing - all of which proved popular at this year’s Tokyo Olympics - there could be greater change on the horizon.
Last week, England Netball struck a pioneering partnership with the England Men’s and Mixed Netball Association, which will see both organisations work together to unlock more opportunities for men and boys. But, with 20,000 men playing netball nationally, the prospect of tapping into the explosive market of mixed team sports remains an unrealistic option for netball. Guthrie - whose England colleagues regularly pit themselves against elite male players in training camps - is unequivocal about her sport’s need to evolve.
“Personally, I’m a traditionalist, I love the way that we play,” she said. “I love the fact that we now have more men and boys playing - I think that’s an area where we can definitely look to invest in. What I’d hate is for netball to get caught up in trying to compete when actually we’re not in a professional space yet.”
“It’s easy to get caught up in the glitz and the glamour and the lust of a new sport or version of a sport and what it could bring but we need to raise our standards of the sevens game and really look to see how we can create that space a bit bigger. I do think if you go too soon in all these spin-off games, sometimes they peak but there’s no sustainability and I’d hate to see that for netball.”
England’s opening Test in their three-match series with Jamaica on Sunday will be the first time that both teams take to the court since the bombshell news that netball’s Commonwealth status is under threat. As such, the match has taken on a new significance.
“All we can do is show what a great product netball is and hope that other people get on board with that,” concluded Guthrie. “We can only hope that people keep wanting us to be on a global stage at a Commonwealth Games. I believe we can be.”