England’s inaugural men’s netball team prepare for first game

As England’s inaugural men’s netball team prepare for their first international game, captain James Thomson-Boston talks about making history.

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History will be made on Sunday when England’s inaugural men’s netball team play their first international match against Australia in Sydney.

The men’s match will be a curtain-raiser to England Roses’ – the women’s side – second game of a three-match series against Australia on Sunday.

Thomson-Boston tells BBC Sport about getting into a sport predominantly played by women and what it means to be part of a side that will go down in history.

‘It isn’t just a girls’ sport’

Thomson-Boston, who turns 30 on Wednesday, started out as a basketball player but “fell in love” with netball after he was asked by friends to play mixed netball.

“It’s a highly athletic sport that doesn’t get the credit it deserves for how tough it is to play,” he says.

“Most boys join and they’re just running around all over, but once you really start to learn the game you realise how amazing it is.”

There are currently about 10 men’s netball clubs in the UK, including Knights, whom Thomson-Boston also captains.

Men have long been a part of the training process for Super League teams and the Roses, but now, through England Men’s and Mixed Netball Association (EMMNA), they are starting to create their own identity in the sport.

“The men’s game is a lot more aerial with more contests in the air. It’s seen as an athletic style of netball, whereas the female side is very smart,” says Thomson-Boston.

“That’s why it’s so amazing to play the Roses the way we do because there’s only so much we can do in a game by being athletic.

“You watch the Roses play and you think ‘OK, so that’s what I can do to beat a player that means I’m not just sprinting at 100mph’.

The Thorns squad was announced in Marchexternal-link but trials took place before Covid hit and Thomson-Boston says “people were working tirelessly behind the scenes” to ensure the infrastructure was in place to get the squad up and running after lockdown.

Once the team was announcedexternal-link Thomson-Boston says “it never felt like anything other than partners” between them and the Roses.

The men even helped with England’s preparations for this summer’s Commonwealth Games in Birmingham.

“It just validates the fact that this isn’t just a girls’ sport, that boys should be allowed to play it and that the stigma will lift the more that we push ourselves out there.”

‘Why are we limiting anyone playing any sport?’

Thomson-Boston was born in Australia, where netball is one of the dominant national sports and, he says, there is no stigma around men playing netball.

“Men’s netball, women’s netball, mixed netball – it’s all under the same banner and it’s respected as the same sport,” he says.

“When I moved over to England about nine years ago I noticed it was non-existent. Even just trying to find a mixed team was really tough. I would say ‘I’m just off to play netball’ and people would say, ‘you mean basketball?'”

Thomson-Boston says many of the Thorns players had to fight to play the sport they love.

“A few of the boys persevered through quite a tough couple of years where they’ve said ‘I really want to play this sport’ and they’ve been met with resistances at school or at other netball clubs who didn’t want a boy playing with them,” he says.

“Now they’re here at the elite level and it just shows this sport should be available for boys to play,use why are we limiting anyone playing sport? You should be able to play whatever sport you want.”

Who better to test themselves against at the elite level than the sport’s dominant force, Australia.

“We know Australia are an elite team and they have been for a while, but we have the element of surprise,” says Thomson-Boston. “We’ve watched their games and they have some athletic boys, but not compared to the boys we have.

“It could be false confidence, but you should never go into a game thinking you’re going to lose and, as a captain, I could never say that. So we’ve got this.

“This is not just for people who are part of our England set-up. We all come from individual clubs where we’ve been allowed in to all-female clubs, and sometimes they’ve just let one of the boys in to train.

“No matter the outcome, we know we’re going to do them all proud and the win will be a bonus.”

Thomson-Boston says he and EMMNA hope that international fixtures can become more frequent, with a view to getting at least mixed netball into the Commonwealth Games.

“The sky is the limit,” he says. “I would love to have a full men’s team there, but if we’re doing baby steps then mixed would be first.”

‘It’s monumental for netball’

The Roses begin their series against Australia on Wednesday in Newcastle, near Sydney, and for many players it will be their first international netball since the disappointment of finishing fourth at the Commonwealth Games in August.

Defender Geva Mentor, who has 160 England caps, says it is an opportunity to show they have recovered from their “traumatic experience” in Birmingham and also a “monumental” moment to have the men playing on Sunday.

“It’s really exciting. How great that the men are the curtain raiser when normally in most sports it’s the other way around?” she says.

“Why not get excited about it? It brings a different dynamic. It’s not trying to replace female netball – it’s just trying to find it’s own niche in the world.

“It’s monumental to have them playing alongside us – it’s where we want to take it. Netball is in a really healthy space with regards gender equality, and it’s important for us to keep improving and pushing that.

“I’ve always been a big advocate for boys in netball. They’re pumped to be here and that’s the way it should be because they’re leading the way on it.

“The more people are playing, the more we can capture a different audience and the greater it’s going to be.”

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