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THE FINISH LINE

Much to learn for Singapore's netballers after tough outing

Their World Cup performance may not have been outstanding but the players still draw praise for their spirit and playing style

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Team Singapore goes in for a huddle with coach Natalie Milicich (in black) before a Netball World Cup game at the M&S Bank Arena in Liverpool, England.

JUST one goal separated the champions from the silver medallists at the quadrennial Netball World Cup held in Liverpool in July - where New Zealand upset holders and 11-time winners Australia 52-51 in a thrilling final that kept spectators on the edge of their seats.

A single goal made the difference between agony and ecstasy. The Kiwis would know. After all, it has been 16 long years since they last won the title.

"It has taken us a long time to be able to get to this stage. Sometimes good things take time," said New Zealand coach Noeline Taurua at the post-match press conference on July 21. "I'm very aware of my role, and I'm only one piece in the mix of everything," Taurua said, adding that she's proud of how comprehensive the New Zealand netball programme has been.

Conversely, the Australians are not used to losing and tears were shed; they had previously snagged 11 world titles and triumphed at the last three World Cups. Australia coach Lisa Alexander said her players were "shattered". Interestingly, she added that talk in the changing rooms involved ensuring that players remembered that feeling of hurt, "because that's what helps drive athletes to higher levels of performance in training".

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Meanwhile, pre-tournament favourites England beat South Africa to bag the bronze. The hosts were gunning for gold on home soil, but suffered an agonising two-goal defeat to New Zealand in the semi-finals, where the Kiwis overcame a boisterous pro-England crowd.

Not losing out were the passionate Zimbabwe fans who made their presence felt at the arena with their songs, drums and slick dance moves as they cheered on their team with every goal scored, as if they had just won the championship.

As for Singapore, they finished last among the 16 competing teams after losing all seven matches, which included defeats to New Zealand and Asian rivals Sri Lanka.

New Zealand's Taurua, commenting after her team defeated Singapore 89-21 in a group game, said: "Singapore is ranked among the lowest in the competition, but I love their style of play. Sport in general is an opportunity for women to get out there and express themselves. I thought there were moments when they had us on the back foot, and they put some beautiful shots in."

Indeed, while Singapore captain Charmaine Soh was a leading light, and the team displayed glimpses of good defensive work, the speed and stature of their opponents ultimately proved too much to overcome.

Starting them young

Nonetheless, Team Singapore coach Natalie Milicich noted that she was not disappointed in her players. "It was about hanging in there and we had to look at what was achievable with a very young team. Ultimately we are realistic about the fact that we are not professional. We are unfortunate that we don't have the funding to have full-time paid athletes. If we did, I think eventually those gaps will narrow."

Soh, who shared that this might be her last World Cup, said that one way to improve the level of netball in Singapore is by training athletes as early as possible. "Countries like Australia or New Zealand start training their players really young. At five or six, they're already playing netball. In Singapore, we only start in Primary 3 or 4 (ages nine and 10)."

She added that having programmes for kids could also mean that Singapore would have a larger pool of players to tap on.

World Cup ambassador and Uganda captain Peace Proscovia, 29, echoed the importance of grooming the next generation of netballers. Asked how she felt about being substituted in one of the games by her 22-year-old teammate Mary Cholhok, Proscovia replied: "Coming off and letting someone like Mary go in is my pride. One of my key objectives is to promote the young ones, because the future does not belong to us (who) are edging out. Mary is much younger than me, and she needs that time to gain confidence."

For Proscovia, netball has changed her life in many ways - it gave her an education and a better shot at life. That same young girl who grew up in a poverty-stricken village now plays professional netball and is even pursuing a PhD in Australia.

Indeed, netball, or any sport for that matter, is much more than what happens on the courts. Sport helps to develop patience, tenacity and grit. It galvanises people and has the ability to empower women, and inspire a whole new generation of athletes.

As Nelson Mandela once said: "Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire, it has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope, where once there was only despair."

Stronger sporting culture

Singapore can learn from other countries that performed better at the World Cup. New Zealand, with a smaller population, won the trophy. Debutants Zimbabwe finished a respectable eighth despite having fewer resources, and needing to crowdfund to afford attending the World Cup.

Team Singapore should learn from their experience at this major tournament. Qualifying for this World Cup was a triumph, but there is much work to be done if they want to be competitive on the international stage in future.

A bigger effort should be taken to groom promising talents in Singapore and forge a stronger sporting culture. A good start would be to invest more in young athletes, hire world-class coaches, and improve the country's netball programmes.