Covid-19 has brought tough times for the netball world, but no group has been impacted by the pandemic more than men’s and mixed players. By the time Australia’s men’s and mixed teams can play in a National Championship again, 1000 days will have passed. At grassroots, the relative newness of men’s and mixed netball has left them at the back of the queue for facilities and game time. But, in the UK, England Men’s and Mixed Netball Association, or EMMNA for short, have been working round the clock to ensure their players have a chance to play again this summer. Out of all that hard work has come EMMNA’s inaugural National Tournament, to be played in Nottingham 7-8th August.
The National Tournament brings together over 200 players, from 16 teams, for a weekend of competition. The men will play a pool format, with the top 4 teams after the group stages progressing to play for the National Men’s Cup and the bottom 4 competing for the National Men’s Plate. Mixed will work in a round-robin format, with every team playing each other once. The two teams with the most points will then battle it out for the National Mixed Cup, whilst 3rd and 4th will play off for the National Mixed Plate. For the teams who prevail they will have the right to call themselves England’s first ever men’s and mixed national champions, a huge moment in the history of men’s and mixed netball in this country.
So, who is competing? And, more importantly, who does the Netball Scoop Europe team reckon is most likely to take home the trophies? Keep reading to get the scoop on how each team shapes up for the competition, and which players you should really keep an eye on.
Sideline TV will be streaming the whole tournament, so keep an eye on our socials for links to watch!
So, who is going to be at Nationals and what do they make of their chances?
Knights are arguably the most well-known team in the tournament, having been formed in March 2018. They began as a club for men searching for a higher level of netball than was available in social leagues and since then have played against England U21s, Wales and Scotland. They also competed in Fast 5 All Stars in 2019 and trained with the England Roses. Most recently, 4 of their players were named as London Pulse training associates. And that’s just a highlights reel of their achievements to date – pretty impressive for a club going into only it’s 4th year!
Knights are taking two 12-man squads to nationals, ‘K1’ and ‘K2’, and whilst they say they understand it will be a challenge given all the unknowns that comes with this being the first ever Men’s and Mixed tournament, they are heading to Nottingham with the aim of finishing first. General Manager (and player) Lewis Keeling told us that whilst their first team is fairly settled, at this point having a couple of years of experience playing together, their 2nd team has a lot of new faces to the club who haven’t played much competitive netball but have raw talent. Their aim in training has therefore been to get their 2nd team players to understand ‘that the players around you are very capable of doing their own jobs and therefore not trying to do it all which is a common theme amongst good social players in poorer leagues’.
London Giants are the new kids on the block when it comes to men’s netball in London. Although Stephen and Ryan, club founders, had serious discussions about starting a new club in London in early 2020, as with everything else in the last 16 months, COVID-19 got in the way. Fast forward to May 2021 and they were finally able to host their club launch and open day from which, in just 10 weeks, they have put together a men’s team and two mixed teams to send to Nationals. Although they are a new netball club, they already have a sister club, the London-based AFL club London Giants. They also gained official recognition as the London charter club from SSN’s Giants Netball. This young club has therefore taken its place in the Giants family, and certainly play with the pride that comes alongside representing that name!
For Giants, it’s about more than just netball. Ryan and Stephen said they envision the club to be a friendly place where every member of the family can get involved. They say they want to establish pathways so, when they have ‘retired’, their kids – no matter their gender identity – can get involved and look after the club for years to come.
That being said, they were also pretty clear that they are heading to nationals to win both competitions. Whilst they are aware there are other more established men’s clubs entering the men’s side, in their opinion their mixed teams are certainly ‘there or thereabouts’. Giants men’s have also had a number of players move over from Knights to join the club. This not only adds extra motivation to put out strong performances against former teammates, but also means many of their men’s players have experience playing together long before being named as Giants. As for the Giants ladies, mixed coach Char said they are ‘incredibly strong’. From a coaching perspective she said that ‘it’s been awesome at training seeing the mixed team get better and better as the combinations gain more understanding of each other’s playing style.’
Yorkshire-based Titans are another of the more established sides heading to Nationals. After seeing the rise of Knights in London they realised there was a lack of opportunity for men’s players in the North of England, and so in June 2019 Northern Titans Men’s Netball Club was born. They first scouted players through the mixed-netball scene in Leeds and have only grown from there. They have grown so much that, in May 2021, they were able to announce that two of their players, Sam Barnes and James McClelland, had joined Leeds Rhinos as training partners.
Co-Presidents Declan Kohl and Della Claydon said it was a ‘big deal’ to be heading to nationals, as ‘when we founded the club there was only one other team in the country and to now have a Nationals, is a huge step for the sport’. They said they are aiming for a top 4 finish, but like Knights admitted it is hard to predict where they will finish with new teams popping up all the time. Ultimately their aim is to be competitive in this tournament, with squad Captain James McClelland saying they have players who are certain to play at at least a 7 or 8 out of 10 in every game, the kind of consistency McClelland says can only benefit them in a tournament structure.
Spartans Men’s Netball were formed in February 2020, just before the pandemic hit. Like Titans they spotted there was a gap in the market in Manchester, there being opportunities for men to play mixed netball but not really anything on offer for men’s players. When asked about what it means to have a national tournament for men’s and mixed, Spartans said it was ‘refreshing’, as ‘men have been playing netball for decades’.
They have said they are undoubtedly heading to Nottingham to finish as winners of the men’s section, with their motto being ‘train hard and play easy’. Their training sessions are fierce and this shows in the competitive and aggressive brand of netball Spartans put out on court. They recently played a friendly against London Giants and whilst Giants came away with the win, Spartans pushed their men’s side the whole way. Having sized each other up, the rematch between these two sides will definitely be one to watch at Nationals.
Spartans will also be sending a mixed team to Nationals, saying ‘the women who play mixed … see it as an added bonus to play with and against men for the physicality and the different style of play men bring to netball’.
Norfolk United Netball Club (NUNC)
Another young club, NUNC were formed in May 2021 after being approached by EMMNA to be a flagship club in the east of England. Karen Webb, NUNC head coach said she had been interested in starting a men’s club after seeing men being invited to women’s training and the invitation from EMMNA was all the incentive she needed to get going! They are about to start their 3rd training block, and from the new season the club will hold full club status with competitive, development and social opportunities.
They say at this stage they are a club focused primarily on development, having only played one friendly to date. However, Webb claims their players are progressing incredibly quickly and so are keen to finish as high as possible at Nationals. Mainly, NUNC is about inclusivity, with Webb saying their aim is to create an environment ‘you just want to be a part of and get stuck in!’
University of Warwick Mixed Netball Club
The University of Warwick are probably the most established mixed netball club in the tournament. They were unsure of exactly when they started, but they have committee photos dating back to 2012 – so they’ve certainly been around for a while! Club Captain Oscar said he was very proud that his team ‘makes netball accessible to everyone regardless of their gender identity’, with the creation of a national tournament allowing the club ‘to be more competitive than ever before’.
UWMNC are currently having to train from home now universities are finished for the summer, with all their players being based in different parts of the country. They will be hosting a training weekend, however, where they will play against multiple clubs in order to prepare for Nationals. The lack of preparation time doesn’t knock Warwick’s confidence, however, with Oscar naming their midcourt in particular as being very strong with the ability to impress at Nationals. Overall, this tournament is about showing what Warwick can do, with Oscar claiming ‘as long as we go out there and play our best netball, we will be incredibly proud of ourselves.’
It’s hard to look past Knights 1s as likely winners of this year’s men’s tournament. Being the first men’s team in the UK they have years of experience on the other teams involved, with a first team stacked with individual talent. However, London Giants’ men’s is made up of numerous players who began their careers at Knights, plus some exciting new talent. This gives them an edge as it hasn’t been necessary to spend time at training building connections, plus they have the added motivation of beating their former team. Because of this, it would be the obvious choice to suspect Knights 1s will face Giants’ men’s in the final.
The mixed final is much harder to call, with the majority of teams being newly formed in the run up to this tournament. Uni of Warwick have had a mixed club for a couple of years, which may give them an advantage over other newly formed teams. However, being a university team, they naturally have a high turnover of players. Plus, they have been hit by Covid-19-related issues which has hindered their training and may mean they fall just short. Although they only held their open day 10 weeks ago, the fact that London Giants have managed to put together 2 mixed teams suggests that they are overflowing with talent. They will also be desperate to set up an all-Giants mixed final for the chance to have all their teams finish either 1st or 2nd in both sides of the tournament.
ONES TO WATCH
Whilst netball is a team sport, we can’t deny we love players who contribute to the highlights reel. For that reason, we’ve put together a ones to watch list so you know who to look out for to get your fill of lay-ups and flying intercepts.
James Firminger and Luke Owens – Spartans – Shooters
15-year-old James Firminger has been called a ‘diamond in the rough’ by Spartans. He’s ‘unknown to most’ being so young, but Spartans reckon he is going to impress a lot of people in this tournament with his calmness on court and accurate shooting. He links up with 17-year-old Luke Owen, another super cool shooter. Owen is a creative playmaker with a superb ability to give and go to work himself into the circle, or offload to Firminger at Goal Shooter. He is also more than willing to put up long shots – the ideal Goal Attack. This Spartans shooting duo might be young, but they play like shooters with years of experience under their belts. Their fearlessness and confidence will definitely trouble even the most experienced defenders at this tournament.
James Thompson-Boston – Knights – Defender
Knights have called James Thompson-Boston their one to watch. He is an Aussie goal defence who Knights’ captain Lewis Keeling reckons will fill the highlights reels. Being Australian he’s likely to bring a physical, man-on style of play with added interceptions as is customary for men’s netball. Ryan Allen, EMMNA president, has called him the best player in the country, claiming he ‘reads the game better than anyone else’. Allen also says that whilst he looks unassuming, he has an incredible netball brain that is unmatched.
Jamal Nicholson – London Giants – Defender
London Giants’ Jamal Nicholson is a born entertainer and could probably fill a highlights reel of Nationals on his own. His skills include jumping high enough for rebounds that he can take the ball before it even hits the ring, coming from nowhere for unbelievable interceptions and he’s not a bad shooter if called upon, either. He captains Giants men’s side this year, bringing to the captaincy a wealth of experience. Already on his resume is a stint playing in Knights’ first team and experience as a training partner with London Pulse. If you’re a fan of defence, Nicholson is your man to watch.
Jared Bleakley – London Giants – Midcourter
Another player who has moved over from Knights to Giants, Jared Bleakley is a midcourter who can do it all. Having played netball for over 9 years, and represented South Africa at junior level, he has plenty of experience. He is a natural Wing Attack with unbelievable speed and pin-point precision on his feeds into the circle. Where he really impresses though is on his defence. If Giants lose a ball in their shooting circle, look out for Bleakley to win it back before the opposing team even have a chance to look down court. His versatility in the midcourt makes it likely that we will see him get plenty of game time during this tournament.
Daniel Moaddabi – Norfolk United – Defender
Norfolk United’s captain, Josh Dyde, called Daniel Moaddabi one to ‘keep an eye on’. He says he brings ‘so much energy and a determination to get on to the ball’, something that ‘could be key in certain matches’. Men’s netball is a lot more about interceptions and getting onto loose balls than women’s or mixed. A style of play which is always likely to suit a natural ball getter such as Moaddabi.
Lee Robnett – London Giants Lions – Shooter
Lee Robnett is new to competitive netball, having only played mixed netball socially up to now. Speaking to Netball Scoop he said he was ‘looking forward to playing netball at a more competitive level and seeing the amazing talent from across the country’. What Robnett lacks in experience he more than makes up for in raw talent. He’s got speed to burn and a natural affinity for the baseline, being able to make baseline drives no defender could stop. He’s also got incredible ball handling skills, being able to pluck any ball out the air before it goes off the baseline. Look out for him in London Giants’ Lions shooting circle.
Frankie Wells – South-West Hawks – Shooter
Frankie Wells plys her trade at Surrey Storm, so her credentials speak for themselves. Although she sat behind Karen Bailey and Emma Magee in the 2021 VNSL season, when she took to court she was super impressive, sinking long-shots and rotating well in the circle. She is undoubtedly the one to watch in this South-West Hawks side as her experience at elite level will set her in good stead to match up against the tall, mobile Goal Keepers and Goal Defences in this tournament.
Jen Walsh – London Giants Lions – Defender
Jen Walsh is the backbone of London Giants Lions’ defensive unit. She has a wealth of experience having played both women’s and mixed netball for many years. Her height, at 6ft, means she can also match up to any male shooter. She also has an unparalleled ability to read the game which, when coupled with how clean she is, means she wins a lot of ball both through flying interceptions and tips.
David ‘TinTin’ Watts – South-West Hawks – Shooter/Defender
Ex-England and Nottingham Hoods basketballer, David ‘TinTin’ Watts is a major get for South-West Hawks. He will be playing at both Goal Shooter and Goal Keeper for Hawks and, standing at 6 ft 9, it’ll be hard for any opposing shooter or defender to keep ball safe with him around.