Heartbreak but still hope at Wasps Netball

Sarah Taylor tells us she remains optimistic despite the collapse of Wasps. Credit: PA/ITV Central

I meet Sarah Taylor in the entrance of The Coventry Building Society Arena and we head to a room she has secured so I can interview her. It has beams of light shining directly down, leaving surrounding areas in darkness and that pretty much sums up Wasps Netball.

Only formed in 2016 in partnership with Wasps Rugby, the elite side has experienced great success, winning superleague in 2017 and 2018, finishing runner up in 2019. But with those highs have come the unbearable lows that players and staff are experiencing this week.

Everyone has been made redundant and although much was made of the perilous situation that the men's professional rugby club found themselves in, there was hardly any mention publicly about what was happening with the netball side. Most will have suddenly become aware of the very close ties when administration occurred and everyone became redundant.

Sitting down with Sarah, she tells me she's determined not to cry and I immediately put my foot in it by asking for the tape what her "former" position in the club was, so we have it on record. Her reaction was a mixture of gallows humour and shock- she like others are still processing what has happened this week. Yet there was also a determination in her voice.

Sarah is very much the public figure of Wasps netball right now- a parental one for those at the club who face an uncertain future. She's trying to remain positive for their sake and her own. I asked her how hard it is to remain optimistic, she simply replied that there is little choice but to be.

When I brought up the possibility of netball leaving Coventry and what kind of impact it would have on everyone to lose Wasps netball entirely, she struggled at first to answer through her tears.

This illustrates just how much of a loss the netball club is to people who have dedicated their whole lives to it, whilst also balancing other commitments. Most people within the club, including players, have other jobs. It's the reality of playing an elite sport that is not yet fully professional.

The loss is hitting hard.

And yet, there remains no bitterness or anger directed at the rugby club, that perhaps some would say are responsible.

When asked if there are fingers being pointed, Sarah was resolute.

"Let me make it perfectly clear, there's none of that... It's 100 per cent standing shoulder to shoulder with my colleagues".

I was left in no doubt that the club is suffering as one and that although Wasps Netball have been badly affected by what has happened at the rugby club, she maintains success in netball would not have been possible without the partnership in the first place.

But it still raises questions.

Issues need to be addressed

What has happened to Wasps rugby and also Worcester has led to important conversations about how the sport is run, its finances and how it should change to ensure it is sustainable.

These are questions now also facing the netball community.

There has been a lot of focus this year on England because of the Commonwealth Games and domestically, there had been strides taken to match the competitiveness and allure of leagues in New Zealand and Australia, where more than a few British players have departed to. Broadcast deals and sponsorship are in place and there's more money in the sport than before.

But Wasps potentially ceasing to exist raises important questions about netball's place in the sporting world.

Have eyes been taken off the ball so to speak? Were questions ever asked about what would happen if a franchise failed because of its alignment to another sport?

Melanie Mansfield was Wasps Head Coach for four seasons and Assistant when titles were won, Sharing in the devastation that people are feeling, she told me that the situation will have shocked everyone and that conversations should be and are taking place about how netball teams are financed and also what sits beneath the top elite level too.

For her it's also about training and playing space, outside interest and facilities. Wider issues that cannot be addressed overnight.

England Netball have committed themselves to finding a solution for Wasps, but if one is to be found, the next phase should be looking at the game as a whole. Mel was brutally honest in saying that the game is not yet ready to be fully professional and there is some way to go. There is no greater example of this than having an elite sport side so closely tied to another that they suffer the same fate and two sports lose big names, rather than one.

A netball partnership with a rugby side is nothing new now though. Saracens Mavericks (ironically Wasps first match of the new season) and Leeds Rhinos are aligned with respective rugby sides. There's also University backed clubs such as Loughborough Lightning.

But models have failed before.

Yorkshire Jets/Leeds Carnegie and Team Northumbria lost their respective backing and/or their Superleague place, but is the watershed moment? Losing a big name like Wasps would be a tragedy for the sport, the community in Coventry and the West Midlands.

Clearly the issue needs to be looked into at a time when the sport is inching its way to someday becoming fully professional.

What next for Wasps netball?

With England Netball actively in talks with administrators, there's hope players can get back on court. No player has left to join another team as yet and discussions have taken place about how the side could play in Superleague.

Options include becoming a standalone side or still part of Wasps. The bottom line is, it will still take money to make it happen and time is no one's friend right now. But those at Wasps have made it clear that support is being given by the governing body and no stone is being left unturned. If there is a way, it will be found.

That sums up the netball community.

There won't be any supporter or player that will want to see Wasps Netball go to the wall.