Netball is New Zealand’s leading women’s sport. This fast, skilful team game is played at both a social and competitive level by females of all ages, and has become increasingly popular with boys and men. New Zealand’s national women’s netball team, the Silver Ferns, are repeat world champions and Commonwealth Games gold medallists.
Netball is a seven-a-side game, based on running and jumping, and throwing and catching a ball. Goals are scored at either end of the court, when the ball is thrown through an elevated hoop. Each goal is worth one point. Most top-level games are 60 minutes long, played in four quarters of 15 minutes.
Each athlete plays in a distinctly named position and wears a bib with the initial letters of that position:
Only two players from each team – the goal shoot and goal attack – can score goals.
Unlike in most other team sports, no player can score a goal single-handed. The team in possession of the ball must pass it through zones known as thirds that are marked on the rectangular court. These thirds, which are reversed for the two teams, are known as attack, mid-court and defence.
In May 2012 there was controversy when during a game between Auckland team the Northern Mystics and the Melbourne Vixens, the Mystics’ goal defence Anna Harrison was lifted by a teammate to block a shot at goal. This move, dubbed the ‘ladies’ lineout’ (a reference to the rugby tactic) and the ‘Harrison hoist’, was legal, but some commentators called it unfair.
No player has access to all areas of the court. The goal shoot is allowed only in the attacking third, including the shooting circle, while the goal attack can also venture into mid-court. The wing attack, who feeds the ball to the goal shoot and goal attack, can move inside the attacking and centre thirds, but not into the goal circle. The centre has the run of the court, except for the two goal circles. Wing defence, who tries to disrupt the flow of the ball through the court, is allowed inside the mid-court and defensive thirds but not the goal circle. The goal defence defends the mid-court and defence zones, and, like the goal keep, can defend against shots inside the goal circle, but the goal keep is restricted to the defensive third.
In 2012 there were over 1,000 clubs in 90 centres nationwide. Clubs had over 135,000 registered members and another 80,000 people played in social competitions. Netball was the second-largest participation sport in secondary schools, with 29,725 girls and boys involved in 2011.
Netball is traditionally a winter sport, but for elite players taking part in international test series and semi-professional club competitions, playing netball is a year-round engagement.
The game originated in the United States. Teacher James Naismith invented men’s basketball in 1891 at the School for Christian Workers (later the YMCA) in Springfield, Massachusetts. Female teachers who watched the new game of a ball being thrown into a high peach basket became captivated by it and started playing their own version.
In 1897 the Otago Witness reported that, ‘A new game for girls, about which a good deal will probably be heard in the course of the ensuing summer, is basket-ball. It has already swept the United States, completely eclipsing lawn tennis, and effectually nipping in the bud the threatened revival of croquet ... The chief beauty of the game is its simplicity, and the fact that no expensive apparatus is required. Wherever two old baskets, a couple of clothes props, and a ball, are there can it be played.’1
It is commonly thought that ‘women’s basketball’ was introduced to New Zealand in 1906 by the Reverend J. C. Jamieson, travelling secretary of the Presbyterian Bible Class Union. He had seen the game being played in Australia and thought it was ideal for teenage girls. In 1907 a demonstration game was played by YMCA and Bible class teams in a paddock in Mt Eden, Auckland.
However, there are suggestions that the game was already being played in Whanganui and Otago, introduced by physical education teachers from England before the start of the 20th century. Herbert Milnes, the principal of Auckland Training College from 1906 to 1916, further boosted the sport’s popularity by encouraging his female students to play it and take it out to schools.
Jamieson introduced a nine-a-side game, which was played on grass courts. This version of the game was different from men’s basketball. The art of dribbling the ball had disappeared. Heavy floor-length skirts and leg-o’-mutton sleeves restricted women players’ movement, so instead the ball was passed from hand to hand. Lines were drawn on the court to mark where players could and could not go.
Basketball associations were established in Otago (1915), Wellington (1918), Wairoa (1917), Auckland (1920–21) and Canterbury (1921). Rules of play varied from place to place. In 1924 the New Zealand Basketball Association was formed to run the game throughout the country.
In 1935 the New Zealand Basketball Referees’ Association was established. By that time there were 25 local associations and 1,112 teams, and basketball was the most popular winter sport for New Zealand girls and women.
New Zealand’s first international match against Australia, soon to become an arch-rival, was played in Melbourne in 1938. New Zealand was the only country playing nine-a-side basketball, so the change to only seven players on court did not come easily to the New Zealanders – they lost the inaugural test 40–11.
But the New Zealanders impressed with their agility, two-handed passing and knack of jumping high to ‘mark’ (catch) the ball, much like players of Australian football. The same attributes were recognisable in the New Zealand style of netball in 2020.
If New Zealand was to become part of the burgeoning netball world, a universal set of rules had to be agreed. The first international rules were drawn up in 1957 and applied in New Zealand two years later. The most crucial change was making the game seven-a-side.
At this stage basketball was still a ladylike affair – it was frowned upon to oppose a shot at goal or contest a rebound. Married women were discouraged from playing the sport, with teams often disqualified if they were found to have ‘post-maritals’ in their line-up.
The 1960 national team was the first to play an international test series in the modern era of seven-a-side basketball. The coach of that side, Dixie Cockerton, wasn’t entirely unhappy to see the end of the nine-a-side game. ‘Back then you had five seconds to shoot, and everyone around you had to stand perfectly still. My worst experience was sneezing at that moment.’1
Standardised rules opened the door for the first basketball world tournament, played in England in 1963. The New Zealand players faced an arduous five-week ship passage as their build-up, training on deck every day and losing balls overboard.
The New Zealand team, which included future netball matriarch Lois Muir, finished runners-up at the tournament. They lost their final game to Australia by one goal – setting the scene for future intense trans-Tasman encounters.
It was not until 1970 that the sport became officially known as netball in New Zealand. Referees became known as umpires.
By then, the game had moved from grass to asphalt outdoor courts. It was played by school teams and competitive club sides, and housewives and mothers participated in social mid-week fixtures, bringing their children to the courts. In 1976 there were more than 6,000 senior teams and 2,800 primary-school teams in New Zealand.
The game itself was becoming more physical. Although it was deemed a non-contact sport, players began moving the ball through court more quickly and contesting the ball with greater ferocity. The rules have been constantly fine-tuned to adjust to the more athletic style of netball.
In the 1980s the national association made a concerted effort to raise the profile of netball. In 1989 the first executive director was appointed, and in 1990 the association changed its name to Netball New Zealand. The national team became known as the Silver Ferns. In 2019 Netball New Zealand worked with five zones and 83 centres to administer, promote and develop the game nationwide. About 350,000 New Zealanders played netball.
New Zealand has been at the forefront of changes and developments in the international game. Netball New Zealand works to foster the game offshore, particularly in the Oceania region. From 2010 the Pacific Netball Partnership between Netball New Zealand, Netball Australia, the Oceania Netball Federation and the Australian government provided more than $3 million in funding and support over four years to build netball facilities and deliver coaching and development programmes throughout the Pacific.
Basketball became extremely popular after the Second World War, and in some places the number of girls wanting to participate in Saturday competitions was overwhelming. In Greymouth in the 1950s there were not enough courts, so until more were built, the main street was blocked off and converted into three outdoor basketball courts on winter Saturday afternoons.
New Zealand children can start playing netball at the age of five, and some people play right through to masters grade. There is strong Māori and Pasifika participation, which has an enduring influence on the style of the game, particularly in terms of fluid movement and sleight of hand. Social netball is popular, as are the more recent incarnations of the game – indoor netball and summer leagues. Both have mixed grades.
While netball is a predominantly female game, the New Zealand Men’s and Mixed Netball Association continues to grow in strength. It had its origins in the New Zealand Men’s Netball Association, formed in 1984 soon after men began playing the sport in New Zealand. The association amalgamated with Netball New Zealand in 1996.
In 2012 there were 15 teams competing in a national tournament. From 1985 New Zealand and Australia played a trans-Tasman series every second year.
Men’s netball is played in 14 countries, but receives less attention from sponsors and spectators than the women’s version of the sport. Men’s netball has yet to gain membership of the International Netball Federation (INF).
A number of men umpire women’s games at the highest level.
From the mid-1920s the main domestic competition was the annual Dominion Tournament between provinces. The premier trophy was the New Zealand Cup. Because of increasing numbers of teams, the tournament was split into two grades in 1932, three in 1936 and four in 1958.
In the 2010s the national netball championship continued this tradition. It featured the top regional sides, and there were corresponding age-group championships. There was also a national secondary schools competition and a trans-Tasman secondary school tournament.
From 2008 one of the highest-profile domestic events was the Lois Muir Challenge, involving the most promising New Zealand players and acting as a feeder for ANZ Championship teams. In the later 2010s this development competition became the Beko Netball League.
The 2008 introduction of the ANZ Championship – a joint initiative by Netball New Zealand and Netball Australia – took the sport into a new semi-professional era, and further lifted the profile of the game in Australasia. Involving the top echelon of players in five franchise teams from each country, the competition was played on either side of the Tasman over four months, with more than 11 million television viewers and 224,000 spectators across a season.
New Zealand was represented by the Northern Mystics, Waikato Bay of Plenty Magic, Central Pulse, Canterbury Tactix and Southern Steel. Players for these teams and the Silver Ferns could now make a career (and the stars a living) from the sport. The last ANZ Championship was contested in 2016, and from 2017 the two countries had separate elite competitions. In New Zealand’s ANZ Premiership, the five existing teams were joined by a second Auckland-based team, the Northern Stars.
As a curtain-raiser to the ANZ Championship, a televised College Netball league raised the profile of younger players. Secondary school teams from around New Zealand competed in rounds before a grand final decided the winner. In 2019, 16 teams contested the Fuji Xerox NZ Secondary Schools Netball Champs over four days in Nelson.
The ongoing struggle between Australia and New Zealand was summed up by former Silver Ferns captain Bernice Mene: ‘It seems every time we thought we were reaching the top of the ladder, there are green and gold shoes stamping on our fingers.’1
At the top level, little separates New Zealand and Australia on court. Following the first international match between the two nations in 1938, there were many other fiercely contested games. By 2020 the two nations had met 151 times. The Australians had won 95 of these tests and the New Zealanders 54; two games had been drawn. Of these encounters, 68 had been decided by five goals or less. Extra time has sometimes been needed to determine a winner.
Since 2010 the Silver Ferns and the Australian Diamonds have met annually to contest the Constellation Cup, usually in a four-test series.
Over 20 million people play netball throughout the world, in more than 80 countries. The sport is strongest in Commonwealth nations, but it is also growing in Zimbabwe, Taiwan and the United States.
The top four nations are traditionally New Zealand, Australia, England and Jamaica. Trans-Tasman rivalry between the Australian Diamonds and the Silver Ferns – the teams have often been separated by only one goal after 60 minutes – has also heightened interest in international clashes.
The game was first played in floor-length skirts and button-up shoes, which hindered movement. Soon, the uniform became black woollen gym frocks, white long-sleeved shirts, a tie, black woollen stockings and sandshoes. In 1967 the New Zealand Basketball Association decreed gym skirts could be shortened by 2 inches (5 centimetres), provided the players wore black tights. By 1975 the Silver Ferns sported shorter pleated skirts and short-sleeved shirts with white sports shoes, and lycra appeared at the 1999 world championships. In 2020 the team wore a one-piece sleeveless black and silver dress made from moisture-dispersing polyester and designed for comfort, movement and temperature balance.
The pinnacle of netball worldwide is the World Championships (rebranded in 2015 as the Netball World Cup), played every four years. Since the competition began in 1963, New Zealand and Australia have dominated.
New Zealand has won the world title four times – first in Perth in 1967 when the side was unbeaten throughout the tournament. In 1979 New Zealand shared the world crown with Australia and Trinidad and Tobago, in a three-way tie (finals were not played until 1991).
In the last world championships held outdoors, in Glasgow in 1987, New Zealand was unstoppable – no team came within 10 goals of them. It would be 16 years before the Silver Ferns again tasted victory at a world tournament, in Jamaica in 2003 – and another 16 years before they repeated the achievement, in England in 2019.
In 1963, 1991, 1999 and 2011 New Zealand was denied the world title by just one goal – always by Australia.
Netball was first played as a Commonwealth Games sport in 1998. As a core sport, it must be included in the programme every four years.
From 1998 to 2014 the gold medals were shared between New Zealand and Australia. The Silver Ferns won back-to-back titles in 2006 and 2010, with the latter final decided in extended extra time, 66–64. In 2014 they came second to Australia and in 2018 they could manage only fourth, with England beating Australia for gold.
The most recent addition to netball’s international calendar is the Fast5 Netball World Series. Created as netball’s equivalent to rugby sevens, the annual tournament – first played in 2012 – features the top six netball nations. The innovative rules are designed to arouse new interest in the game.
Fast5 is shorter and faster, with goals shot from outside the shooting circle awarded three points. An additional semicircle marked inside the goal circle is the line between goals worth one and two points. Each team chooses one quarter as a ‘power-play’ period during which any goals they score are doubled in value.
The number of players in each side is reduced to five, with the wing attack and wing defence positions removed.
Fast5 evolved from the FastNet concept introduced in 2009. New Zealand won the first two FastNet world titles, represented in the tournament by the FastNet Ferns – a mix of Silver Fern internationals and promising young players. When England wrested the world-series crown from the Ferns in 2011 it was the first time in 32 years an international netball title had not been won by an Australasian nation. By 2018 New Zealand had won seven of the nine series played, with England victorious again in 2017.
Every four years, the World Youth Championship pits the world’s best under-21 netballers against each other. Since the tournament began in 1988, New Zealand has won the title four times – in 1992, 2005, 2013 and 2017.
Although netball was first beamed into Kiwi homes in the 1960s, it was in the 1980s that the sport made a huge leap forward in television coverage. In an effort to make the game better recognised and more attractive to sponsors, the Netball Association hired a marketing company and appointed a chief executive.
Sponsors were found for the national team and major domestic competitions, and live television coverage of international tests in prime viewing time began. It helped that the national team of the time, coached by Lois Muir, was one of the strongest representative sides in the game’s history.
Netball was frequently amongst the highest-rating programmes on free-to-air television. The 1999 world championship final, played in Christchurch between New Zealand and Australia, was at the time the highest-ever rating programme on TV2, with more than 1 million viewers in New Zealand alone. In 2011 netball coverage moved to pay television, Sky Television.
Commenting on the advent of indoor netball, Lois Muir remarked that ‘in the ’70’s, we’d go to England and play inside sports centres, where the crowds were small – 500 screaming girls they had brought in. But it was great, and I knew it had to come to New Zealand.’1
After seeing netball played in indoor stadiums in the United Kingdom, New Zealanders followed suit for major games in the early 1990s. The era of playing on cold, wet and windblown asphalt courts was over.
Once top netball matches began to be played indoors, suitable venues had to be found throughout the country. Not only did these require the capacity to seat thousands of fans, they needed special sprung wooden floors to prevent players suffering knee and ankle injuries.
The largest indoor venue in New Zealand is Spark Arena in Auckland, which can seat 12,000. In 2012, this venue pulled in a record crowd of 8,500 spectators for a test between the Silver Ferns and the Australian Diamonds.
Netball fans are vociferous and passionate, expressing support for their teams with unique noisemakers, known as ‘thunderstix’. The inflatable plastic, sausage-shaped bangers – which amplify applause – were created in the late 1990s by long-time New Zealand netball sponsor Fisher and Paykel.
There have been many netball stars over the years. Some remain particularly well known because of their contribution to the sport as players, coaches and administrators.
Lois Muir has played a part in most of the significant changes in netball history. Born in Mataura, Southland, she became a formidable defender, and was chosen for the first New Zealand seven-a-side team in 1960. She was vice-captain of the national team at the first world championships in 1963, and coached it for 15 years from 1974.
Instrumental in securing the first sponsorship deals for the sport, Muir was president of Netball New Zealand from 2007 until 2011. She was made a Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2004.
New Zealand netball has been repeatedly honoured in the annual Halberg Awards. The Silver Ferns were named the Team of the Year in 1987, 2003 and 2019, and New Zealand coaches Lois Muir, Lyn Gunson (formerly Parker), Ruth Aitken and Noeline Taurua have all received Coach of the Year awards. In 2003 Irene van Dyk was named New Zealand Sportswoman of the Year. The 2003 and 2019 supreme Halberg Awards went to the Silver Ferns for their world-championship-winning performances. In addition, Muir, Joan Harnett, Waimarama Taumaunu, Sandra Edge, Rita Fatialofa and Lesley Rumball (Nicol), and the 1967 and 1987 world-championship-winning teams, are inductees to the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame.
Irene van Dyk went from villain to hero in New Zealand netball history. In 1995 the tall young South African sharpshooter helped the Proteas win an upset victory over the Silver Ferns, denying them a place in the world-championship final. In 2000 van Dyk moved to New Zealand and played her first international in the black and silver dress.
Van Dyk’s astonishing shooting skills – she occasionally shot with 100% accuracy in a match – took her to a world record 217 test caps by the time she retired in 2014, including 72 for South Africa. In 2009 she was appointed a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit.
A shooter in the New Zealand team at the 1979 world championships, Paeroa-born Ruth Aitken was appointed coach of the Silver Ferns in 2001. Over the next decade, the Ferns had 87 wins and a 78% success record, including the 2003 world title and two Commonwealth Games gold medals.
In 2011, the year she retired as coach, Aitken became an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit and took on a new role as Netball New Zealand Coaching Director.
Renowned for her indomitable style, Wai Taumaunu was a New Zealand representative from 1981. The astute defender played in the national side for 10 years, including at three world championships, and was captain for three years. She was also a stalwart of Wellington netball.
Taumaunu became assistant coach of the Silver Ferns in 2008 and succeeded Aitken as head coach in 2011. With Taumaunu at the helm, the Silver Ferns won the Constellation Cup for the first time in 2012. Away from the court, she has worked on government initiatives to boost sport, including developing coaching and Māori sport, and sitting on the governing board of SPARC (now Sport New Zealand).
Regarded as one of the best defenders the netball world has seen, Casey Williams (now Kopua) was also lauded for her leadership skills. She was part of the New Zealand under-21 team that won the 2005 World Youth Championship, and won gold with the Silver Ferns at the 2006 and 2010 Commonwealth Games. She captained the Silver Ferns from 2009 to 2014, and in 2011 she was made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit. She ended her career as a key member of the Silver Ferns team which won the world cup in 2019.
Casey Williams’s near-contemporary Laura Langman captained both the victorious 2005 youth team and the 2019 world-cup winning Silver Ferns. She also won gold medals at the 2006 and 2010 Commonwealth Games. Langman retired from international netball in 2020 with a New Zealand record 163 test caps, the first 141 in succession. The athletic mid-courter achieved a unique double by winning the trans-Tasman league with Waikato Bay of Plenty Magic in 2012 and the Australian league with Sunshine Coast Lightning in 2017.
Andrew, Geoffrey. ‘“A girls’ game – and a good one too” – a critical analysis of New Zealand netball.’ MA thesis, University of Canterbury, 1997.
Gray, Russell. Changing colours: the Irene van Dyk story. Auckland: HarperSports, 2002.
Greatest moments in New Zealand netball history. Chicago: Canada Hockey LLC, 2011.
Hawes, Peter, and Lizzy Barker. Court in the spotlight: history of New Zealand netball. Auckland: Netball New Zealand, 1999.
Macdonald, Charlotte. ‘Netball New Zealand 1924 –.’ In Women together: a history of women’s organisations in New Zealand: nga ropu wahine o te motu, edited by Anne Else, 431–433. Wellington: Historical Branch, Department of Internal Affairs/Daphne Brasell Associates, 1993.