The UAE netball team embarks on their first international competition in more than two years - the European Open Challenge in Gibraltar this week.
The UAE Falcons are currently 37th in the world and will face Gibraltar, Isle of Man, Switzerland and Malta in the five-team competition being held for the first time since the coronavirus outbreak.
Susanne Skelding, UAE team manager, pointed out the tournament - being held from Thursday to Sunday - as an exceptional event because of the pandemic.
“The girls are very excited and looking forward to the competition and it’s also important for countries to maintain their world rankings,” Skelding, a driving force behind development of netball in the UAE, said.
“We have a very big challenge. We are playing against various levels of teams. I think our biggest competition will be the Isle of Man and Gibraltar, and there are Malta and Switzerland, perhaps more in our level in this competition.
“In certain areas on the court we are stronger than we have ever been. We have a very good attacking end with the shooting, and I think we got more opportunity to put the ball away.
“We lost a couple of very good defenders due to injuries. I think a good result would be a place behind Isle of Man and Gibraltar. However, we want to make these two meetings really good games. For a team that is rebuilding, coming third would be a good result.
“We have to be realistic as we are rebuilding and regrowing, and we have to respread the word about getting involved in netball in the UAE to get more people involved.”
The UAE Falcons, led by ex-Welsh international Carly Lewis and coached by former England international Deb Jones, is a new squad with some as young as 18.
“The last time we played in this competition was in May 2019,” Skelding said. “We received the invite just before the summer. It was a long preparation since then, a bit difficult and not ideal for a national squad training.
“We had a very intense training programme. Dubai College is a major player providing us the training with a lot of expertise in skills and fitness from their staff. They have been hugely supportive in preparing the girls and providing us the facilities.
“Like all sports, netball competitions came to a tumbling halt after the pandemic. We are now picking up the pieces and rebuilding a new team because the UAE is a transient place where people come and go.
“We have only two players that have competed at international level. Some of them are very young in the age group of 18. We hope to build on this for the next Open Challenge in May 2022.”
Jones and Skelding have been championing the growth and development of UAE netball for the past 10 years and are passionate about the sport and its inclusion in school curriculum and creating a pathway for athletes to excel and represent the UAE.
A netball schools programme was introduced three years ago but came to a halt after the outbreak of the pandemic.
“We started working with the sports coordinators employed by the Ministry of Education and from the result of that professional development, offering some coaching clinics to the players as well as the staff to empower in officiating and coaching,” Skelding said.
“The girls were thoroughly enjoying the sport when the pandemic broke out. We now have the opportunity to rebuild in the post-pandemic period as the schools are reopening."
According to Skelding, netball is under-funded and a number of volunteers offer their time tirelessly to make sure the sport develops.
“I’m not afraid to say we need sponsors and we need people that can put some money behind the sport,” she said.
“It’s fairly unique as it is an all-female sport where women can feel empowered and supported to play within the all-female community.
“We have the blessings of the Dubai Sports Council and they want to see events coming forward and there has been continuing discussions with Dubai Tourism and the General Authority for Sports to establish a federation.
“The UAE is strategically placed to host a world netball event. They have the infrastructure and ready-made facilities. There is a plan on the table and a pathway to take off culminating in the 2031 World Cup in the UAE.
“For me, that would be the legacy I would like to leave and make sure that would happen.”
UAE team Carly Lewis, (captain) Emily Fensome (vice capt), Megan Polley, Rachel Tuckey, Nicole Sproul (midcourt), Jenna Guy (vice capt), Hannah Southam, Kate lewis, Sophie Siffre (shooers), Kelly Loy, Karon Trichardt, Charlie Preston (defence)