Cover Image: Marcela Massey
Teams competing at the 2023 Netball World Cup can now substitute up to three players during the tournament, if they are impacted by illness, injury or family emergency. The recent announcement by World Netball is designed to recognise player welfare and workload.
Historically, teams selected 12 players for a tournament, and couldn’t replace any of them, no matter what the circumstances. If a team had a serious injury, the remaining players had to drag their sore and weary bodies through extra minutes on court. Emotionally it took a toll too – not just for the injured player, but for the team as they tried to salvage their tournament.
In one of many hard luck stories over the years, England’s Layla Gusgoth ruptured her Achilles during early pool play at the 2019 Netball World Cup. Along with feeling saddened for her, I remember thinking the Roses would struggle. They did, and it was a credit to the team that they finished in third place.
South Africa had a nightmare 2018 Commonwealth Games, losing Lenize Potgeiter in the lead up, Danielle Lochner (ankle) a few days before hand, and Precious Mthembu (ACL) during the tournament. The three injuries caused chaos for the team, and replacements would have been welcome.
So overall, being able to replace a player is viewed as positive. However, like Suncorp Super Netball’s controversial two point shot, there are more layers to the policy than an onion.
Trialled at NWC qualifier events, minutia for the ruling is still thin on the ground. We do know that the three travelling emergencies can come from any area of the court, not just one per third. So potentially a shooter could be substituted with a midcourter, and so on. And if they replace one of the selected 12, the change becomes permanent and the original player can’t re-enter the tournament.
What is yet to be revealed is whether the substitution can only take place between matches, or whether it can occur during one. If an athlete goes down with a suspected ACL injury or a concussion during a match, can a coach ask to replace them immediately? Imagine being able to bring on a replacement during a medal match – it could change the outcome of a game and even the tournament.
There are some flaws to the policy, and the biggest one is its lack of affordability for most nations. With even Jamaica, ranked number four in world, crowd-funding their attendance, few teams can afford to fly and house three extra players. So it would benefit more affluent nations at the expense of others, and is tailor made for countries with plenty of depth.
Suggestions have been made that World Netball fund all the ‘Plus 3s’. However, flights and accommodation for up to 48 players (3 for each of the 16 nations) is the equivalent of paying for another four teams – a budgetary nightmare.
An alternative is for World Netball to get creative. Could the host nation put together a small pool of players who’d be willing to act as injury substitutes for underfunded teams who travel without replacements? In many sports, the host supplies anything from rowing shells to horses needed for the Paralympics.
Players not chosen for their national team could nominate to take part, and be whittled down to 10 or 12 athletes across a range of positions. No international airfares needed, and for World Netball to cover the cost of their accommodation and training would be far less than for the 48 players the new policy allows.
The idea isn’t implausible, although a few extra rules would have to come in. The replacement player pool, for example, would have to be exempt from mandatory stand down periods.
With the 2027 event held in Australia, there will be a number of Suncorp Super Netball players not selected for the Diamonds. Some might love the experience, sharing knowledge, skills and friendship with other players and countries, and even learning a national anthem a tad more exciting than Advance Australia Fair.
Overseeing the current policy is another huge challenge, and judging someone unfit to play will need independent, careful medical and ethical assessment. In a sport that already tolerates ‘eyelash’ injuries for time outs – despite being outside the rules – it’s not much of a stretch to think strategic player departures could occur.
With teams needing to be selected so far before the tournament, coaches do take a leap of faith at times. Imagine selecting a marquee player who is underperforming at domestic level, and finding they don’t improve, or not choosing another player who improves in leaps and bounds. Running a midcourter hard, then substituting in fresh legs towards the finals. A shooter with the yips? Time for a sneaky switcheroo.
Some injuries and illnesses are hard to disprove even with expert eyes on them – muscle strains that have no bruising or swelling, a painful back, a concussion that happened during a closed door training, migraines.
While it would not only be illegal but brutal to replace a player in any of these ways, the capacity to subvert the rules is now there. There’s bound to be fine print that the public aren’t aware of, but the rule change will need very close monitoring.
Tactically, having a ‘Plus three’ adds an exciting dimension to selection. In recent years, knowing that injured players couldn’t be replaced, multi-positional players became the vogue. Most athletes had to be capable of playing two or three positions, or in the case of the exceptional Latonia Blackman, anywhere on court!
That could change. We potentially could see the return of more specialist players, rather than shuffling the existing deck to fill a gap.
Australia provides a great example of how a team was impacted by injury, and how that could now change.
For the 2022 Commonwealth Games, the following players were selected, each of them having played two to three positions at Super Netball or Diamonds level. With Paige Hadley (calf) out injured for most of the tournament, Steph Wood and Kiera Austin both spent time at wing attack, Ash Brazill at centre, Sunday Aryang and Jo Weston crossed to wing defence at times, while Liz Watson played extra minutes and Kate Moloney barely left the court.
Thanks to the Diamonds’ flexibility they were able to cover Hadley’s loss, get out of jail, and go on to win gold.
Player Positions Number of positions
Cara Koenen GS GA 2
Gretel Bueta GS GA WA 3
Steph Wood GS GA WA 3
Kiera Austin GA WA 2
Liz Watson WA C 2
Paige Hadley WA C WD 3
Kate Moloney WA C WD 3
Ash Brazill C WD 2
Jo Weston WD GD GK 3
Sunday Aryang WD GD 2
Courtney Bruce WD GD GK 3
Sarah Klau GD GK 2
With replacements now available, does an athlete’s capacity to play across a range of positions still improve their chances of selection? Is a goal attack still needed who can cover wing attack, or will they be judged purely on accuracy and play making ability? Are two midcourters that can play across three positions required, or could one of them make way for a positional specialist?
In the circle, it could be viewed that Steph Wood, with her history of soft tissue ailments, is at greater injury risk than some of her shooting compatriots. Given her workload and nous, she’s also tough to replace. If she went down, rather than shuffling a player like Cara Koenen or Sophie Garbin out to goal attack, perhaps enter Sophie Dwyer? She might not be as prolific as a goal shooter replacement, but she’d be the closest like-for-like cover for Wood.
At the opposite end, an athlete like Tilly Garrett, if not selected in the team, could be a second ‘Plus 3’ candidate. At 186cm and capable of playing across three positions, she could act as a scarily tall wing defence, or in the circle, pushing Jo Weston or Sunday Aryang onto the wing.
Having an extra who can spread across three defensive positions then allows room for a pure centre/wing attack as the third replacement player. Imagine having the immaculate feeding skills of a Maddy Proud on tap if needed?
Teams are often defence heavy in the midcourt, trying to impact the ball before it reaches a tall and accurate shooter. This can prove costly, as it did for the Roses 2022 Commonwealth Games campaign. As the only attacking midcourter selected, Nat Metcalf was run ragged during pool play, and subsequently below her best during the finals. And if she’d been injured, no one else on the team had her ability to get the ball to the shooters.
So with the defence well and truly covered by a multi-position player, having a specialist attacking player on hand could be the difference between gold and fourth, which is where the Roses ended up last year.
The closer to finals a replacement is needed, the more strategy could change. If a shooter or defender goes down, do you instead swap in a midcourter to add fresh legs? With only a couple of games left in the tournament, a team could probably get away with just three shooters or defenders if they’re all fit and firing.
Like the super shot in Super Netball, the ‘Plus 3’ rule has been brought into the World Cup with the best of intentions. However, there’s also hidden depths to this innovation. Working through the fine print, monitoring and assessing the changes, and some lateral thinking are going to be needed to make sure it’s a positive rather than contentious issue.
And meanwhile, it gives coaches another selection headache, and fans plenty to chat about.