Last weekend, Wales collected a silver medal after winning 91-24 against the Republic of Ireland at the 2019 Netball Europe Open Championships. This was Wales’ final international test match of 2019 and marks a transformative period for the senior squad who have now gone 7 games undefeated against opposition from across the globe.
Back in the autumn of 2018, Julie Hoornweg arrived as permanent Wales head coach. As interim head coach at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, Hoornweg had led Wales to a first-ever quarter win over the Silver Ferns and a record victory over Fiji.
Hoornweg’s vision for the squad was to establish and implement the ‘Welsh Way’ of netball – a new tactical doctrine that would help propel Wales back up the International Netball Federation World Rankings.
In addition to the tactics of the ‘Welsh Way’ a vital part of Hoornweg’s new coaching set-up would be her management team. She was joined by assistant coaches Jenna Adamson and Sara Hale and returning as team manager was Lavinia Baker – all of whom work voluntarily with the squad. Adamson is currently Director of Netball at Millfield School and previously served as Severn Stars U21 head coach. Hale meanwhile enjoyed an incredible playing career with Wales and Manchester Thunder before becoming an assistant coach for the northern franchise. She has also worked under Tracey Neville as a defensive technical coach in the English set-up. Baker had worked with several senior and age group squads, most recently at the 2018 Commonwealth Games. Physio Rachel Spanner and analyst Gemma Davies were also back with the squad for what would prove to be a pivotal year.
A new long squad was selected, combining youth and experience as a new generation looked to make their mark in the red dress.
Commenting at the end of the first block of training, Wales player Kyra Jones said: “The intensity in training has lifted immensely. The culture within this group is developing in a very positive way and it’s exciting to see!” With a new strategic direction set, Wales was ready for the challenge of 2019.
Missing out on the 2019 Netball World Cup would always be a source of disappointment, but the reaction of the squad and management could not be faulted as Welsh Netball announced an ambitious 6 test schedule for June. Wales hosted South Africa for two tests, followed by games against Malawi and Trinidad & Tobago, finishing with two games against Grenada. At the time, South Africa were 5th, Malawi 9th and Trinidad & Tobago were 11th in the INF rankings and so the Welsh squad knew that they faced quite the challenge at the Viola Arena. For the summer tests, captaincy duties were to be shared by the incredibly experienced pair of Suzy Drane and Nia Jones.
Wales faced a stern examination by South Africa in the first test, before bouncing back creditably in the second to put the other visiting nations on notice. Broadcast live for the first time ever on S4C, Wales’ game against Malawi turned heads across the netball globe as Cymru went through the gears to record a historic win against the Queens. The next day Wales proved that result was no fluke when they comprehensively beat a strong Trinidad & Tobago side. Wales’ final two tests also saw big wins against Grenada with co-captain Suzy Drane winning her 100th cap – only the second ever Welsh player to have done so.
Wales now had four impressive wins under their belt and six newly capped young players. They had shown the world what it was missing in Liverpool and it was then time for a break ahead of the 2019 Netball Europe Open Championships in Belfast.
The squad received a boost ahead of the tournament with the news that they had risen back up to 10th in the INF World Rankings. They knew that the focus would now be going for gold in Belfast against higher ranked Northern Ireland and England as well as a spirited Republic of Ireland. Wales’ performances at that tournament capped a memorable year for the national squad and with the top 12 in the world qualifying for the 2022 Commonwealth Games the future for this group of athletes looks very bright indeed.
Reflecting on a magnificent year for Wales, Rachel Bayley, Welsh Netball’s Head of Performance said: “Firstly I would like to congratulate the players for all of their hard work over the last year and thank the management team – especially our volunteers – for all that they’ve given to the national side in that time.”
“Wales faced a huge challenge in the 2018 Commonwealth Games and demonstrated true resilience in the face of missing out on the 2019 World Cup. Their response to adversity has been a credit our netball community.
“Julie and the team set about creating a distinct, focused and passionate squad culture back at the end of 2018. All of those months of preparation and intensive training have paid off, starting with our fantastic summer test wins and culminating with a thrilling Netball Europe campaign.
“2020 promises to be another massive year for netball in Wales and I’m excited to see what this group of athletes can do in the 12 months to come and beyond!”