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South Africa are playing in the Netball World Cup. Did you know?

South Africa are playing in the Netball World Cup. Did you know?

The South African netball team will begin their World Cup campaign while you are snuggly asleep on Friday morning. Did you even know there was a Netball World Cup? Well, now you do. By ANTOINETTE MULLER.

The righteous indignation surrounding the lack of coverage around women’s sports can get a bit tiresome at times, but how many people even know that the Netball World Cup is about to start in Sydney and that South Africa are taking part? Did you even know that South Africa had a national team? Very few people have a clue.

It’s not your fault, of course. Decisions on what goes into the sports pages of newspapers are made based on many factors, including the resources available to whatever is decided to be of national sporting importance (hint: it’s usually a male-dominated sport).

For many, netball is nothing but a flash back to playground politics in school when the tallest girl was stuck underneath the goal, regardless of whether she had any real aptitude. The short ones go on the centre and the still short, but a little bit taller than really short ones go on the wing. But netball is one of the most popular sports in South Africa. It is estimated that close to 2-million women participate in the sport in South Africa and it is one of the few sports offered at schools across the board. It is the third most popular sport for kids at school, just behind soccer and athletics, but ahead of rugby and cricket.

Encouragingly, too, most netball players are black. Surveys show that 1.5-million black women play netball and it remains the number one team sport for women in South Africa. These are impressive figures and when the semi-professional league was launched last year, it added further incentives for players to take up the sport and to curb the dropout rate, which sees around 50% of players quit the game after high school. A number of South African players have also left the country to pursue a professional career overseas and represent their adopted countries. That story will be familiar to those who follow cricket, but in a sport like netball, which has remained largely amateur in South Africa since the country’s return from sporting isolation, it’s a direct symptom of the lack of growth.

In the last few years, the sport has seen some money steadily trickle in but, overall, netball remains underfunded in South Africa. However, there are opportunities overseas for talented women to earn a decent living from playing the game. South Africa’s Phumza Maweni and Maryka Holtzhausen will attest to that. Both played in the UK’s Super League this year.

But netball at the international level is a different kettle of fish, and for South Africa, this World Cup will be a tough challenge.

The South Africans have a new coach. Norma Plummer is an Australian who coached the Aussies to two world titles in 2007 and 2011 and took over as coach at the Diamond Challenge series a few weeks ago. She has had just three full weeks with the team, but believes things are going along steadily.

The problem with South Africa is learning how to win,” Plummer told Guardian Australia.

Once they do realise what it takes to win some big matches, then I think we will start to see this side play to its potential.”

South Africa last won a medal at the tournament in 1995, when they finished second, but they have not finished better than fourth in the last four years. South Africa are up against Malawi first and by the time you are reading this, the result will already be known. The Proteas lost to Malawi during the Commonwealth Games play-offs last year, but have a 4-3 advantage over their last seven games.

South Africa are far from favourites this year, but there is plenty of exciting talent to look forward to. The more eyeballs, the more funding for the sport in the long term too. The good folks at SuperSport will be broadcasting the action, despite the utterly hideous time difference.

August is Women’s Month after all and while Rebecca Davis has already expressed enough outrage for everyone, it’s not the worst idea to promote the Netball World Cup in honour of women doing great things on the sports field. Tune in, you might just be surprised. DM

Photo: Jade Clarke of England (L) vies for the ball with Erin Burger of South Africa during their netball preliminary match at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, Scotland, July 27, 2014. REUTERS/Phil Noble

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