Netball: Singapore's top league finally returns after Covid-induced hiatus

The Netball Super League will be the first local sports league to resume full scale after the Singapore Premier League. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - After a year of being stuck in limbo, the Republic's top netballers will finally get to compete again when the Deloitte Netball Super League (NSL) returns on Saturday (Jan 15) after it was cancelled owing to the pandemic last year.

The NSL will be the first local sports league to resume full scale after the Singapore Premier League, which is for the nation's professional footballers.

The annual seven-a-side tournament faced multiple postponements in 2021 and was eventually cancelled with strict safe management measures (SMMs) making it impossible to stage. Instead, a modified 3v3 league took place.

This move towards smaller-sided games with modified rules, which was in keeping with national SMMs, was also replicated in other team sports such as hockey and floorball.

The 2020 season had been forced to end prematurely after two rounds with Sneakers Stingrays declared champions. The semi-finals, preliminary final and grand final did not take place.

Five clubs - Stingrays, Blaze Dolphins, Fier Orcas, Swifts Barracudas and Magic Marlins - and Netball Singapore (NS) selection team Mission Mannas will be in action at Our Tampines Hub from Jan 15 to March 6.

Stingrays vice-captain and national player Toh Kai Wei, 25, is looking forward to playing her first full-court game since the 2020 NSL, noting that the uncertainties of the 2021 season had been draining.

The business executive told The Straits Times: "It is very important to have such a platform for us to showcase our abilities, gain more experience and improve. The NSL also serves as a selection pool for the national team, so it also motivates players to play their best."

This year's event will take place in its usual seven-a-side format with two rounds and under strict health and safety protocols, including weekly Antigen Rapid Tests (ARTs) for players and officials, all of whom have to be fully vaccinated.

ST understands that the teams resumed full-court training while taking weekly ARTs since mid-November.

No spectators are allowed and "micro bubbles" will be in place at OTH to prevent mingling. No international players will join the competition in the second round, unlike in previous seasons.

Other players and coaches are also excited that the netball scene is coming alive again.

Barracudas player Regine Zhou, 24, said she is confident that NS has done its best to ensure the event proceeds as safely as possible.

Some noted that the absence of foreign players was a double-edged sword.

Zhou said: "Our players will have more court time to build on the performances across the two rounds. But it's a pity because the (international players) really add value in terms of their game play and individual skills."

Orcas coach Kok Mun Wai felt that this gives clubs the opportunity to further develop local players, especially those under 21. All teams must field at least two U-21 players for a minimum of two quarters each match - a rule that was introduced in 2019.

"I like (the U-21) rule because we can develop the young players and see where they stand at the elite level. In the long run, we will benefit from it," said Kok, who thanked NS for organising the NSL this year.

While some players and coaches are concerned about a possible lack of match preparedness, they are confident of shaking off the rust when the competition begins.

Sneakers coach Goh Seck Tuck, whose team begin their title defence against the Dolphins, said: "My gut feeling is that the preparation for all the teams will not be sufficient. Hence, the standard of play is doubtful but nevertheless, we need to overcome the situation."

Sneakers captain Eyu Yan Yan added that with multiple changes in group sizes last year, players' individual skills could have improved, but they might need some time getting used to a full-court game again.

The 23-year-old said: "Most of the time in training, we kept to one half of the court so when we first started training using the full court, it was a very different experience and it was tiring.

"We just have to see who adapts the best along the way and how much improvement we can make in the coming few months."

Orcas captain Tan Xin Yi, 25, said players just have to be careful when challenging each other to minimise the likelihood of injuries.

On her goals for this season, she said: "Nobody enters a competition wanting to lose so we definitely want to win games but I also hope that the team try our best and leave no regrets behind. And that we have no injuries."

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