Superleague debutants Leeds Rhinos have their eye on one of the most decorated players in English netball to help launch their maiden campaign.
England Roses captain Natalie Haythornthwaite – a Leeds Beckett University graduate – would be Anna Carter’s “golden girl” when they enter the elite league in January 2021.
Haythornwaite – who plays her club netball in Australia, winning their domestic league with the NSW Swifts – helped the Roses achieve their Commonwealth gold medal in 2018 and maintains her ties with Yorkshire.
Carter, speaking before a coaching a session for the Leeds Rhinos futures academy, she said: “I don’t think it would be any secret or a surprise to anybody that we would love to get Nat. I’ve worked with her since she was seven and her netball career has taken off massively but, by no means, have I had these conversations with Nat.
“She represents everything that netball and women’s sport is about, she is a hard-worker and a pleasure to work with. She is an absolute star and we would love to have her.”
Elite-level netball in Yorkshire has been missing for four years since the former Superleague team Yorkshire Jets disbanded and Carter – previously coach at Loughborough Lightning – believes that what has been lacking for athletes is being able to perform at the top level.
With the Rhinos brand, we find that the door is already open in getting netball in places it probably wasn’t beforeAnna Carter
She said: “When I was at Lightning, it was nice to see the under-21s training and playing on the court next to the Superleague squad, as that is the next thing to aspire to.
“The youngsters were looking across at Roses’ Nat Panagarry and Beth Cobden and thinking that is where they want to be, and that has been missing for a while here in Yorkshire.”
Jets dispersed after the 2016 season, with former head coach Carter believing their product was unsuccessful due to a “reliance” on community funding.
Leeds Rhinos have built from scratch through a really strong community programme and were accepted as an expansion team into Superleague in January 2021 earlier this year.
For Carter, the community platform is vital, but she admits lessons have been learned in not being totally dependent on it.
“Our funding comes from sponsorship, legacy money from the Jets and our community programme. If you look at a lot of the Superleague teams now, they are just starting on that, whereas we have had that platform for quite a while,” said Carter.
Leeds Rhinos have joined Wasps and Saracens Mavericks in linking with a rugby club and Carter is certainly reaping the benefits of this for netball.
“The brand is obviously massive, Leeds Rhinos is well respected in the community,” she said. “A lot of people have their thoughts that netball is a privately educated schoolgirls’ game but Rhinos don’t wear that cap. They are very much a people’s brand and they are involved in so many schools in Leeds and the surrounding areas.
“Rhinos rugby league already have the partnerships that if we were coming in as a solo netball club we would have to build, so we find that the door is already open in getting netball in places it probably wasn’t before,” she said. Although the netball club get no financial backing from Rhinos rugby, they have had the chance to invest in areas that they would not be able to do alone.
The current challenge that faces Rhinos netball is not having anywhere suitable to play their home matches.
Leeds Beckett University’s Headingley campus can accommodate around 700 people but the Superleague now is gaining crowds of more than 2,000 to games so Rhinos are looking for alternatives.
Carter said: “We are stronger together (with the university)than we are separate.
“On our own, we wouldn’t get a centre of excellence or something similar that Rhinos rugby are looking to invest in – they are looking at building a stadium that can have netball in it where we can solve the problem of not having anywhere to play our home games.
“Rhinos have invested in a project manager to support our entering into the Superleague and are looking at the options for how we finance that, but we don’t get bankrolled at all. We are very self-sufficient and we are fine with that. We have our own responsibilities to drive netball and women’s sport forward. It is more about the things we couldn’t get without them.”
Fourteen months prior to Rhinos entering the elite netball league, Carter is excited for what is to come and will be watching the upcoming season closely.
“I think if we said we could have a mid-table finish we would be happy,” said Carter of the 10-team league. It will be 11 when Leeds join.
“We would obviously like to win it, but history tells us – with Wasps being the exception – that your first couple of seasons in Superleague are really tough.”
Carter also believes that retaining players is more important than the table in that first season. “We want the girls to say that they can’t see their netball being anywhere else but here. Then we will have something to build on as the years go by.”