THE team award at the BBC’s flagship Sports Personality of the Year (SPOTY) showpiece is often the most controversial.
One good result can sometimes be enough to seal it and, after reaching the semi-finals of the World Cup in such thrilling style, England’s footballers were expected to walk away with the trophy at last Sunday’s ceremony in Birmingham.
Instead the prize went to the country’s netball team and it was hard to argue the choice after the greatest season in their history.
Not only that, but the Roses also won the award for the year’s best moment. For a sport that struggles to capture the headlines – and a female one at that – it was an astonishing breakthrough and could lead to a significant positive side-effect in Yorkshire.
Founded last year by Leeds Rhinos rugby league club and its foundation, Rhinos netball played their first competitive fixture last Saturday, beating Hertfordshire-based Mavericks 54-53 in the Under-19s National Performance League.
According to their director of netball, Anna Carter, Rhinos are benefiting from a boom in the sport’s popularity and are determined to ride the wave all the way to the national Super League competition.
Participation has gone up by 130,000 since the Commonwealth Games so it is pretty huge at the moment and I think the recognition at SPOTY will only help motivate more people to get involved.Anna Carter
England are now ranked No 2 in the world, the first time Australia and New Zealand have not been rated as netball’s leading pair. They beat New Zealand for the first time in a major competition during the Commonwealth Games and the last-gasp victory over Australia in the final was SPOTY’s most memorable moment.
“It’s hard to put it into context,” said Carter, who is a former England international. “Australia has dominated the world of netball for years and years and nobody has come close, apart from New Zealand.
“England were always sat comfortably in third or fourth, fighting for the bronze medal with Jamaica. To make the steps they have in such a short space of time under Tracey Neville and previous coaches and to finally get that accolade is just huge. It is unbelievable.”
Just as cycling in this country has been boosted by Great Britain’s recent successes – and as rugby union was following England’s World Cup triumph 15 years ago – the Roses have inspired a new generation to take up the sport, or return to it.
Carter added: “This is a really exciting time for netball.
“Participation has gone up by 130,000 since the Commonwealth Games, so it is pretty huge at the moment and I think the recognition at SPOTY will only help motivate more people to get involved.”
It has been serendipitous timing for Rhinos, who are looking to re-establish the sport at the top level in Leeds after Yorkshire Jets lost their Super League franchise two years ago.
The club have been working to develop the sport at grass-roots level and the Under-19s’ debut triumph was an indication of their potential on a bigger stage.
Having led 32-24 at half-time, against established opposition, Rhinos were pegged back to 44-44 with 10 minutes to go, but sealed a famous victory with a goal 30 seconds from time.
Carter confirmed a Super League place is “one of the things we are keen to work towards”. This would see them pitted against Wasps Netball, an offshoot of the Coventry-based rugby union club.
Rhinos have already had one application rejected and Carter explained: “One of the reasons we didn’t get a successful bid this time was facilities.
“In Leeds and Yorkshire we’ve got venues that will hold 1,000 and we’ve got arenas that will hold 8,000-12,000, but nothing in between.
“That’s the main issue and I believe some other sports are struggling with that in the city at the moment, which is frustrating.
“We’ve got so much potential and so many great indoor sports, it’s a shame we can’t cater for them.”
In the meantime the involvement of one of the county’s best-known and most successful sporting organisations can only benefit the sport as a whole, believes Carter.
She added: “In the summer we got awarded the accredited pathway by England Netball, which basically means we run the performance pathway for athletes in the Yorkshire region so they get the opportunity to represent Leeds Rhinos on a national stage, against other areas with Super League teams, in age groups.
“It’s quite a pat on the back from England Netball that we are the club that has the resources to do that, to bring through young players and, hopefully, young future England players.”