/ 1 June 2018

It’s all for the pride of the grind

On the ball: Members of the Baobabs and the Sunbirds
On the ball: Members of the Baobabs and the Sunbirds

It has been barely four hours since the first ball was thrown in their Sunday-morning match but the Southern Stings are at OR Tambo airport to board a flight back to the Western Cape.

It’s a sharp travelling regimen that those playing their first season in the Brutal Fruit Netball Premier League (BFNPL) have likely settled into by now, halfway through the six-week tournament. They don’t have much of a choice — all games are played in Gauteng so they have to embrace the idea of flying if they’re to play in the supreme national event.

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“You adapt and get used to it but for the beginners it’s really tough,” says the Stings’ Shannen Bartlett. “For me I had to adapt real quick.

“We are the only team that flies. I feel they allow us to travel because they feel it will be less expensive than making all the teams travel to Cape Town. So we can’t complain too much. We just go with it.”

The 24-year-old has no choice but to be stoic — Johannesburg and Pretoria are proximately ideal when considering the 10 teams from across the country. Most are able to travel by car or bus.

It has been a successful weekend for the Stings. On Saturday evening, they netted a 29-point margin against the KZN Kingdom Stars. The 8am game the following day saw them smash the Northern Cape Diamonds 81-27, keeping it consistent with at least 20 goals a quarter. The results mean they recline comfortably on their short midday flight knowing they have sneaked into second place on the log. It won’t be easy to stay there — four teams are within a win of the top spot in the BFNPL, which is the country’s premier franchise netball competition.

It is semiprofessional and its prestige motivates players to fight for a place on the roster of those clubs visiting Gauteng every week. It’s extended time in the spotlight, far brighter than other smaller competitions, can also catapult the participating women, many of whom were recruited from university level, into the national set-up.

Players are fighting to be the country’s best but Monday will bring with it the same pressures and responsibilities that afflict the rest of us. BFNPL players receive a nominal fee, R800 a match, not nearly enough to entertain thoughts of making a solid living from the sport. Most of the women are either students or work full-time.

“It’s tiring but I have a passion for netball so I’m willing to wake up tired for work,” says Bartlett, who is a front-office co-ordinator in her day job. “As long as I can play netball, it’s fine, I’m happy.

“It’s tough because we have netball the whole week, which is also travelling because we train all over. We train in Kuils River, Stellenbosch or Paarl.”

Bartlett plays wing attack, giving her a loose rein to dash around the court and recycle possession. Those who thrive in the position are reminiscent of the best scrum halves in rugby; their ability to read play and be in position to receive the first pass after a turnover before quickly redistributing the ball.

Such energy was overwhelming against the Mpumalanga Sunbirds in the second week of the BFNPL. Up 15-0 in the first 10 minutes, the contrast of ability was blatant even to the untrained eye. The Western Cape side constantly caught their opponents dawdling in their attacking third, constricting the space to block clear shooting opportunities from emerging. From deep, it took them only a few steps to launch the counter, efficiently getting the ball to their goal scorer, whose own movement created a favourable shooting angle. The final whistle brought Sunbirds relief and confirmation of a 58-16 mauling.

[The Stings take on the Aloes (Samuel Shivambu/BackpagePix)]

While watching this action unfold on a Friday afternoon, it was clear the passion on the court was not resolutely echoed off of it. No other journalists attended that day’s matches bar a bored SuperSport team there to broadcast the match. The emcee sat slouched courtside, fiddling on Twitter and WhatsApp, while waiting for halftime to lead the 50-odd crowd in the Cha Cha Slide.

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Playing the game affords no such lethargy. Players must balance their own lives with maintaining a professional level of ability and fitness. Although all face that reality, some have additional obstacles placed in their way.

Currently straddled in mid-table, the Limpopo Baobabs rarely get to train with one another during the week. Some team members are based in Johannesburg and others are as far north as Musina. Like the Stings, all must travel to the game venue every weekend.

“It’s quite difficult, especially when you’re playing against the Jaguars or Free State, teams that know each other better,” says centre and wing-defence Sylvia Lebelo. “On Saturday our game was at 7pm so we were able to have a session in the morning.”

For those representing the Baobabs, it means they’re responsible for maintaining their own fitness and putting in the discipline to train on their own. Lebelo also works and studies full-time but has few complaints about the excessive load.

“It’s tiring sometimes but it’s all about you as an individual; you have to be able to manage everything,” she says. “For my entire life I have been playing netball and studying. It’s all about you and your time frame, what is it that you do when you’re not doing anything. The one thing I would say I’m struggling with at the moment is that you don’t really have a social life.”

Lebelo is not too proud to admit, however, that the thought of quitting netball has wandered through her mind. “It comes and goes. When it’s really difficult that’s when you’ll be like ‘nah I’m done with this’. We were actually making a joke about it. As much as we may say that we no longer want to play netball, netball is a contract. It is a contract that we didn’t read, we just went and signed. Because whenever we say we’re quitting, we can’t. It’s addictive.”

Bartlett expressed the same sentiment, explaining that it has become as much a part of her as anything else. “It’s the passion for netball. I have been playing netball all my life. It’s what I’m used to. Without netball, I would be lost. That’s what I do most of my time. At the end of the day, I would like to be a role model for those who would also like to play for the Southern Stings one day, or even the Proteas.”

There’s a sense of unblemished purity in that dedication. Although players say the national management of the sport is improving greatly, there are no prospects of living an affluent lifestyle because of netball. Those who venture on to the court do so knowing it’s for the love of the game and pride born from victory.