London Pulse have their eyes on the prize for 2021

FOLLOWING a tough inaugural season in 2019, London Pulse managed to turn the tables and opened the 2020 season without dropping a game in the first three rounds. With a new head coach at the helm and several star players in the lineup, it was obvious to Vitality Netball Superleague (VNSL) fans that the revamped London side was one to watch. Netball Draft Central spoke to CEO and head coach Sam Bird and Pulse co-captain and England Roses Futures player Halimat Adio, to get their insight on the upcoming 2021 season and how London Pulse have engaged with each other and the community over the COVID-19 break.

After the announcement of the cancellation of the 2020 Superleague season, London Pulse acted quickly to ensure their players and staff could keep connected over the lockdown. A key initiative was their “Educate, Train, and Inspire” programme, and Pulse ran over 40 online educational workshops for players, coaches and staff over the season break. This was anything from first aid courses, to performance analysis, and even personal and professional development.

In a similar way to most elite netball clubs they also set up regular virtual training sessions. However, they made the most of the opportunity to include all age groups in these sessions, which meant that the youngsters in their Performance Pathway programme were able to train ‘alongside’ the senior players three times a week, and gain valuable insight into the training aspect of playing in the VNSL.

There was a heavy focus on player welfare and supporting the athletes mentally during a very challenging time. Pulse also took the opportunity to encourage their senior squad members to engage with the community and build on their existing fan base and network.

“It was important as a club not to be too inward-looking,” Bird said. “It’s easy to feel sorry for yourself that there’s no netball and we can’t play, but we started to look at other people that were less fortunate than us and to see how we could help in the community.”

This ethos inspired Pulse to deliver adult and junior online camps, as well as virtual seated netball workshops with residents of local care homes, which will continue as part of their ongoing outreach in London.

As well as the effect of COVID-19 on the netball community, 2020 has also raised many issues worldwide surrounding racism. Bird was open about what she thought netball could do to show support for Black Lives Matter.

“Halimat, co-captain of London Pulse, put out a powerful statement about the Black Lives Matter movement and as a person and as a club we want to be able to support that movement on a practical level,” said Bird.

“We arranged a talk from Yvonne Rhoden MBE who spoke about racism, micro-aggressions and her experience in the police service. The Netball Players Association (NPA) are working hard to support the movement and keep the conversation in the public eye.”

“Netball needs to reach out to different communities, because in netball if you’re not from a middle-class background, you’re not going to get the chance to actually play netball,” Adio said.

“We need to actively do something, whether it’s having an Equality Board at England Netball, or employing Black people and Asian people higher up, I think that would be a massive thing for people of different communities. We need to have conversations… it is an awkward conversation to have sometimes.”

England Netball have since announced a new role on their board which will focus on diversity and equality, and hopefully, this will be the sign of positive change for UK netball as a whole.

Adio started on the England Pathway when she was still a teenager.

“I got into England when I was 17. It was from an NPL tournament… I had been trying so many times to get into a regional academy … and then into the NPL tournament. Then I was selected into a positional day, then a summer camp and then I’ve been in it from Under 19s to the Roses Futures now. Hopefully, once I’m done with uni I’ll be able to actually do the full-time Roses programme.”

A talented young defender, Adio spoke about her plans for the future and whether she had her eyes on the ANZ Premiership and Suncorp Super Netball (SSN).

“Every netballer’s dream is to go over there, I’m hoping one day I’m able to go to either Australia or New Zealand. The experience is a massive thing, and just seeing how they play out there is very different to how we play in the UK.”

“With me right now, I haven’t yet marked my place in the UK as I haven’t played a full season. Once I get one or two, hopefully, I can go out there and prove myself out there as well… I played with Jodi-Ann (Ward) in Superleague and seeing the improvement from when she first came over to Severn Stars to how she is playing there, she is a completely different athlete.”

The VNSL has developed many international players who later progressed to the ANZ or SSN, including the likes of Karla Pretorious and Sam Wallace. In 2021, things might be more complicated due to the ongoing impact of COVID-19. There could be administrative challenges involved in getting VISA documentation for imports sorted at a time when immigration services are under enormous pressure, not to mention quarantine rules and potential travel restrictions. However, Bird does not think that overall recruitment will be affected, as the VNSL is still an attractive prospect for international talent looking to make their mark on the world netball stage.

“There is a desire for international players to play in our league as they recognise it is growing and becoming stronger,” Bird said. “I think we will still see teams recruiting very exciting international athletes.”

The long off-season for UK netball also provides a chance for teams themselves to rebuild and restructure their roster for the 2021 season. When it came to the transfer window, Adio said she tends to stay within her own bubble and not focus too much on what is happening in the netball world.

“Everyone’s been quite secretive this year. Hopefully our squad is staying how it is, with maybe just a few changes.”

Bird said she has been recruiting during the transfer window, but was reluctant to give anything away ahead of the squad announcement in the coming weeks. She was recently appointed as the permanent CEO of London Pulse after taking over from Natalie Seaton who founded the club, and Bird will also continue to lead the team as head coach for 2021.

“I have had great support from the owners of the club, who have enabled me to recruit some very experienced staff to assist with running the club … whilst I am in the thick of coaching.”

The new squad for 2021 will be returning to face-to-face training in the first week of October, with a steady and carefully planned return to play protocol to ensure players can get back on court safely.

Preseason matches are on the cards for Pulse prior to the season opener in February, and details for these matches are currently being arranged for late November/December when England Roses athletes will also be available. In January, there may be another opportunity to get a sneak preview of the VNSL squads in action, depending on the timing of the International window, which will be hugely exciting for UK netball fans after a nearly nine-month elite netball drought.

Bird mentioned that we can expect to see a lot of exciting things coming from London Pulse over the next few months, including a brand new interactive website, a membership scheme (including behind the scenes access) as well as even more digital content and the inevitable squad announcement. The team has been extremely busy over the lockdown period and it is great to see the club develop and grow over this year. You almost forget they only began as a Superleague franchise in 2019.

Adio is confident that London Pulse can go all the way in 2021.

“Every team would like to be in the top four, but I feel like our team can definitely do it. We came into the Superleague as underdogs, due to how the first season of Pulse went, but with Sam leading us and all of us leading together I definitely think we can make it into the top four.”

There’s no doubt that London Pulse are doing everything right in preparation for the new season ahead. It is exciting to see a Superleague franchise show real commitment to the local and wider community and hopefully in return receive a boost for the sport as a whole.

Picture: Ben Lumley

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