Men’s netball brought out from ‘behind closed doors’ in landmark series

“If you can see it, you can be it” is a maxim synonymous with women’s sport.

But the 12 men representing Australia in netball in a history-making trans-Tasman series starting this week hope to co-opt the inspirational expression as they bring the male game out from “behind closed doors”.

In a first, the four-game Constellation Cup series between Australia and New Zealand’s female teams will feature two televised curtain-raisers between the nations’ men’s sides.

The first match of the series in Auckland on Wednesday and the third, at Melbourne’s John Cain Arena on October 19, will see the men play before the world champion Silver Ferns take on the Commonwealth gold medal-winning Diamonds.

The men will play a third standalone game in Auckland on October 14, while the women will play another Test in Tauranga on October 16 and on the Gold Coast on October 23.

While international netball remains sanctioned for women only by World Netball – meaning the Australian men aren’t allowed to wear the coat of arms on their uniforms – an agreement between the women’s and men’s governing bodies on both sides of the Tasman has seen the landmark series become a reality.

The build-up has included the men’s team and support staff attend the Diamonds’ training camp at the AIS in Canberra before the teams flew to New Zealand together. Australian captain Dylan Nexhip says these moves are groundbreaking.

“A joint tour to this extent has never happened in the history of our sport so to say it’s super exciting is an understatement. It’s huge, something many of us didn’t even dare dream about,” Nexhip, a teacher who hails from the regional Victorian town of Tongala and now lives in Sydney, says.

The landmark tournament will be followed by a one-off game for the Australian men against the England men’s team at Sydney’s Ken Rosewall Arena later this month as part of another Diamonds series. These games will put the aerial male version of the popular women’s sport – played by more than 116,000 Aussie men and boys – in the spotlight.

For decades, men have played netball in small, self-funded leagues separate from women. In recent years, state bodies have introduced dedicated male pathways for boys, who have to leave the girls’ game aged 12, and even added men’s divisions to senior state titles, as happened in New South Wales this year.

The Diamonds and Ferns have been playing top male sides behind closed doors in practice matches, often losing, since the early 2000s. And in 2019, the Ferns played the first televised match against the Kiwi men.

“There has been a lot of behind-closed-door stuff happen over the years, with the Diamonds and Super Netball teams, but this is our moment to be out there in our own right, after so much work, by so many people, over so many years.

“It’s a milestone and we want to show what we can do and hopefully inspire the next generation,” Nexhip says, pointing out that players still have to pay $3000-$5000 for the tour, despite Netball Australia’s support.

The tour is the culmination of years of graft by many individuals and groups at the grassroots level, often pushing back against traditionalists who fear men might “take over” a sport built by women, for women.

“Regardless of your gender, you should never be told you can’t play a sport. There should be opportunity for everyone, no matter what sport it is, it’s that simple,” Nexhip says.

“Netball is an amazing sport and it’s in a unique position where men and women can play at a very high level. The two can complement each other and having more boys and men play is going to boost the profile of netball as a whole and everyone can benefit.”

Super Netball star Maddy Proud, who could make her international debut in the Constellation Cup after being in the Diamonds set-up on and off for more than a decade, says it’s “incredible” the men will take centre stage.

“Being able to train against them in the lead-up has been amazing. I can’t wait for the world to see them play.”

The 27-year-old says while the Diamonds, even those who didn’t travel to Birmingham, have drawn confidence from winning Commonwealth gold, their eyes are focused on the 2023 World Cup in South Africa.

“Our mission is to win the two podium events. We have one now, but the vision to the next and that means winning this next competition too.”

The world’s number one side will have to do it without arguably the game’s best player, shooter Gretel Bueta, who announced her pregnancy last week.

Coach Stacey Marinkovich, in charge for the first time on Australian soil since she was appointed in 2020, looks set to try a number of combinations after elevating Sophie Garbin to replace Bueta and naming a handful of potential debutants.