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The NSL Files: Team Bath

The netball world would never be the same after an experiment that began in a university office in South West England.

When Team Bath launched their innovative netball programme in 1999, they changed the game and dominated for the first five years of the Netball Super League.

Blue and Gold ribbons adorned the Super League trophy more often than not in the early days of the competition as Team Bath built a dynasty.

It was unprecedented, unrivalled, and as of yet, unmatched – so, how did they get there? 

Team Bath assemble 

In 1999, Team Bath Netball signed their first full-time player in the form of current England head coach Jess Thirlby, or as she was known then, Jess Garland. 

She has been described by her then-teammates as one of the most technical and analytical coaches in the world, but her decision to join Team Bath took little thought. 

“I first heard about Team Bath when I was studying radiography at the University of the West of England,” Thirlby said.  

“I got a phone call from Alison Oliver, who was the deputy director of sport at Team Bath, to tell me that they were going to start this full-time netball programme and would I be interested. 

“I was 19, absolutely loved the game, I desperately wanted to play for England, was heading towards a World Youth Cup.  

“It was just music to my ears, and it was so unheard of as a proposal, that I don’t even know if I finished the call properly.  

“Within a couple of hours, I was over in Bath, overlooking the athletics track having a conversation with Ali around ‘how do I sign up? When does it start?’. It was just a no-brainer for me.” 

And so the journey began, but it was a bumpy road prior to the Netball Super League starting in 2005.

 

In the four years of the Super Cup, Team Bath Force twice finished in the bottom half of the table as a fifth-place finish in the inaugural 2001 season was followed by last place the next year. 

The Blue and Gold lifted the trophy in 2004, but it is their third-place finish in 2003 that Thirlby remembers most fondly. 

She added: “We celebrated like we’d won it. 

“It felt like such a milestone to break into what was the top three, our journey in Super Cup was a real education.  

“So, when we came third that year, I just remember the celebration on the court, we were doing something ridiculous, like, one of the players imitated a shotgun and then we all fell to the floor. It was just so cheesy.  

“It’s important to remember that, isn’t it? Because in sport we understand that we’re judged by results, but our intent is to always compete to win.”

Pivotal to the mindset of Team Bath were the director of netball Lyn Gunson and head coach Jan Crabtree. 

Silver Fern Gunson is a legendary coach, having led both New Zealand and England, contributing to Team Bath’s rise from 1999 to 2008. 

Crabtree is synonymous with the Roses pathway, spending 10 years with England Netball bringing through young talent and leading Team Bath through its first three NSL seasons.

 

They brought together a team of misfits, as Team Bath legend Pamela Cookey described them, but they were already inspiring someone who would soon become their youngest Netball Super League player. 

Stacey Francis-Bayman said: “I remember going to watch Bath University Firsts play Birmingham. Lyn was very much the pioneer of that programme and she invited me to watch the game.  

“It was Sara Bayman, Geva Mentor, Pamela, Bianca Modeste, the team was just unreal. 

“And I remember sitting and watching and she was like, ‘This could be you next year.’ I think from then onwards, I really decided it was going to be something I was going to commit to.” 

The dawn of the Netball Super League 

Prior to the arrival of the Netball Super League, the Super Cup had spanned only six weekends of the year, before players returned to their normal lives. 

The NSL changed things and so did Team Bath, their players were expected to train as full-time athletes with many studying at the university alongside their netball.

This was serious, but that did not mean the players did not enjoy themselves. 

Cookey said: “The aim of the first season was always one of fun. I think because a lot of us played together, whether it was with club or with uni, we had already developed those personal relationships as well.  

“We took that onto the court. We were all really talented, developing all the flair and the individuality. 

“And so, it was like, ‘Ok, now this competition is here, how can we put it all together and still compete while enjoying it?’” 

The NSL saw four of the original Super Cup teams joined by four new teams, including Galleria Mavericks, now Saracens Mavericks, who Team Bath faced in the inaugural Grand Final. 

The Blue and Gold lacked England regulars at the time, but they put in performances beyond their years to overturn an early deficit in the Grand Final to win 43-35. 

“There were so many nerves, butterflies, sweaty palms, everything,” Cookey reflected on the Grand Final.  

“But I just remember having the belief that we had got here for a reason and so it was ours to take away. 

“Winning was amazing, it was my first league trophy, and everyone was just buzzing and the whole squad had worked hard, whether it was the seven on the court or the 12 off the court. 

“It just felt like a real turning point in netball.” 

Cookey’s tribute to the players not included in the Grand Final squad is an important one, with Francis-Bayman experiencing a different start to the Super League. 

The defender spent little time on court in her first three seasons with her and Crabtree not always seeing eye-to-eye.

“I feel like my time didn’t really come, at least on the court, until Jan had left,” Francis-Bayman said. “I certainly didn’t feel you bitter about it at the time. 

“The reason why most professional athletes are successful is because they’re incredibly competitive and, they have a really good level of self-belief.  

“I probably had a really small awareness of what a privilege it was to be there, looking back on the dynasty that we ended up creating.  

“It was pretty special and it was a really cool and welcoming group spirit.” 

Having secured one trophy, Francis-Bayman admitted that there was no pressure on them to go for back-to-back wins. 

However, once they reached the 2007 Grand Final, again against Mavericks, captain Ursula ‘Billy’ Bowers was not going to let them lose it when they were facing a one-goal deficit at half-time. 

Cookey said: “I specifically remember the team talk where Billy Bowers pulled us all in. And she was just like, ‘Why are you guys here? This is our chance to do it.’

“’Do you all believe in yourselves and each other? If so, let’s stop messing around and let’s take this game.’” 

Player of the Match Geva Mentor’s defensive efforts swung the game in Team Bath’s favour and ensured the trophy stayed in the South West with a 53-45 win. 

It was now clear that Team Bath were creating a dynasty.

“I’m really fortunate to say as a member of Team Bath, I’ve never played in the final and lost, so I think you start to build that level of confidence, which gives you a bit of a bulletproof nature when you’re out there on court,” said Francis-Bayman.

“The programme was setting the standard, and the team was setting the standard.” 

A partial rebuild 

The 2007/8 season brought unchartered territory for Team Bath, missing the Grand Final for the first time in the Netball Super League. 

Galleria Mavericks took the crown at the third time of asking and while it was tough on Team Bath, Francis-Bayman relished Mavericks’ win as it showed clubs were upping their game to chase Bath down. 

Following the disappointment of the third season, Gunson and Crabtree departed and up stepped Thirlby, who had come back the previous season as assistant coach after spending a year leading Celtic Dragons. 

She had a tricky task, however, not only was she now in charge of her former teammates, she had to try and stamp her signature on a winning machine that was bruised from a year without a title. 

Her plan? To combine two generations.  

The outcome? An undefeated season ending with Team Bath defeating Galleria Mavericks 54-46. 

Thirlby said: “I remember that one because Serena [Guthrie] always had a bit of a habit of stepping into the centre circle and playing with her afro ponytail.  

“It was a sign of reassurance and nerves. And she’d often look over and then we would just say ‘You’re good to go’. 

“I just remember the celebrations in the changing room after. And that was a really lovely group because there were almost two Team Bath generations together at that point.” 

Another Grand Final appearance followed in 2010 as they encountered Mavericks for a fourth time in the showpiece with Team Bath taking the spoils once again. 

It is a win that sticks out in everyone’s minds, for Cookey as she was captain and for Francis-Bayman as she was Player of the Final. 

It marked a journey from a self-described ‘average’ player to one of the league’s best. 

Francis-Bayman said: “I do vividly remember that game and it finishing and just feeling on top of the world.

“Netball, for me, has given me a taste of so much success that I don’t think I would have been able to be a part of as an individual in a different sport.  

“It is a special moment when you play a team sport to be recognised individually, it doesn’t last forever and it doesn’t happen very frequently, but I do remember feeling pretty proud of myself.” 

For Thirlby, it was the moment where her analytical approach to coaching really took off as she saw the phases of play she had etched out on acetate paper play out in real life. 

She said: “I would spend hours plotting the connections between where one of Mavericks’ passes goes in their first phase and the second phase on overhead projector paper. 

“I just remember being in like real student mode. Ella Clark was playing at the time who I ended up coaching in England U21s, Karen Atkinson was still playing and a lot of what I’d studied really came true in that final.” 

Team Bath were at the top of the world for a fourth time, but it would be their last for three years as players who have come to define what it means to wear the Blue and Gold moved on.

Pam Cookey stayed but admits it was the end of an era. 

She said: “Those were the girls that I had grown up with, those late teenage years, that’s where you really start to find yourself.  

“And so you’re now in an environment with players that are new. Some of them were at university and they’re now starting their journey, whereas I was then a little bit older.  

“So, it did feel like our core group that had been on that journey was now no more.” 

The Super Team still dominates

Team Bath are indelibly linked with the Netball Super League. 

They have added one more title to their collection since 2010 to be the most successful side in the competition’s history.

They have only missed out on the top four twice in their history, the second time coming just this year. 

Current head coach Asha Francis, herself a member of that golden generation, is building her team around a group of plucky young players who look set to be future stars, just as Gunson and Crabtree did all those years ago. 

And the stars of the early Netball Super League era are now dominating the netball landscape, cementing their legacy.

Cookey added: “If you think of all the players and where they are now. Sara is in Australia coaching, Stacey went to Australia and won the league. 

“And Jess is head coach of England, Camilla [Buchanan] is at Mavericks, Kat Ratnapala has done England age groups.  

“There’s Liz Bloor, who is now director of the Netball Players Association.  

“There are so many names that came through that core group that are now smashing it in other areas of netball, like Serena, Eboni, Tamsin [Greenway], I could go on.  

“I don’t think any other team has been able to replicate it. It was a great group at the right time in the right environment.” 

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