Netball: Clarke's challenge to break down barriers

Netball South chief executive Sue Clarke: ''The more we work together across that parochial Otago-Southland boundary, the better we will be off in the South.'' Photo by Gregor Richardson.
Netball South chief executive Sue Clarke: ''The more we work together across that parochial Otago-Southland boundary, the better we will be off in the South.'' Photo by Gregor Richardson.
Netball South chief executive Sue Clarke's biggest challenge will be to bring the tug-of-war to an end.

Otago and Southland are, in many ways, more comfortable in competition with each other than they are playing on the same team.

The deep South is two separate provinces with their own identities and a deeply entrenched rivalry.

But structural changes to the way netball is organised at a national level have meant Netball Otago and Netball Southland have been forced to merge into one zone.

While you can change the name to Netball South, you cannot strip away the parochialism that easily.

The last merger is still bedding in, and it has been six years since the Otago Rebels and the Southern Sting were forced to combine when the ANZ Championship was established.

It did not go well to begin with. Initially, the Steel was seen in Dunedin as the old Sting dressed up as an Otago-Southland team.

The game's profile in Dunedin suffered as the franchise failed to do enough to promote the game in the city. Otago quietly reduced its stake in the Steel from 40% to 20%, and the Steel board finally woke up to the fact it needed to do more.

Last season, the board made a concerted effort to raised awareness of the brand and, with Netball Otago and Netball Southland now operating under one banner, the two provinces really are in the same boat.

Convincing the public is another matter. That role has fallen to Clarke, who has her first official day in the job on Friday. If anyone can bring the two provinces together, it is the upbeat 48-year-old.

She lives in Dunedin, was born in Invercargill, went to school in South Otago and spent her teenage years in Clinton - or on the border, you might say.

''I certainly understand the parochialness but I also understand that we are very proud as southerners,'' she said.

''I believe, if we can show we can lead New Zealand in netball, then some of those barriers will quite quickly break down. The more we work together across that parochial Otago-Southland boundary, the better we will be off in the South.''

The expanded region certainly needs to pull together. Netball South's flagship team, the Steel, is that proverbial small fish in a big pond.

Dunedin and Invercargill cannot hope to match the marketing or sponsorship opportunities which exist in Sydney, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne or even Auckland, yet the team must compete with sides from those areas.

The Steel is at a big disadvantage come recruitment time and finding the funds to keep the franchise financially viable is an ongoing struggle.

The Steel's financial struggles were described as ''grim'' by franchise chairwoman Janet Copeland in February but Clarke said those concerns had eased.

''Otago and Southland netball have worked hard to come back to a level playing field and that is where we are at. We don't have a big debt and we haven't got a lot of money in the bank.

''The budgets are a work in progress because we have got two regions coming together. We've certainly got some draft budgets and they are looking OK. There is not a lot of fat in those budgets but that is my job - to come in and say, 'Rightio, what have we got in there that we really don't require and what do we require?'''

The Steel trimmed $100,000 from its budget for the 2012 season and results suffered. The team won just two of 13 games and narrowly avoided last place.

Beneath that level, the Otago team ended a 14-year drought to win the national championship in October, so there is talent in the region. Developing the younger players and nursing them through to the next level is an area in which the franchise plans to invest resources.