M1 Asian Netball Championship: New format fairer for all

The Straits Times by LIM SAY HENG

The upcoming M1 Asian Netball Championship at the Singapore Sports Hub will break new ground on two fronts.

A record 12 teams will compete in the Sept 1-9 event at the OCBC Arena, up from the previous high of 10 teams in 2009, 2012 and 2014.

Taking part this year are Singapore, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Hong Kong, Japan, Chinese Taipei, Brunei, Thailand, Maldives, India, Pakistan and the Philippines.

As a result of the increase, organiser Netball Singapore has come up with a new tournament structure, which it says would be "fair for everyone".

The old format saw teams divided into two groups to play in a round-robin format. Teams then advanced to the play-offs to determine their final positions.

This year, the 12 teams will be divided into four groups of three in the first stage, based on their world rankings, so that strong and weak teams are evenly distributed.

The Republic, ranked 21st in the world and third at the last championship in Bangkok in 2016, are in Group C with Brunei and Pakistan (both unranked), while defending champions Malaysia (25th) are in Group A with Japan and Maldives (both also unranked).

The winners of the first round-robin stage will be grouped together for the second round-robin phase, the four runners-up will form the second group, while the wooden spoonists from the first stage will form the last group.

Following the second phase, the teams in the winners' group will play in the semi-finals; teams in the other two groups will also play a single classification match each to determine their final positions.

The competition serves as a regional qualifier for the Netball World Cup next year in Liverpool, England, with only the top two teams qualifying.

Netball Singapore chief executive officer Cyrus Medora said: "I suggested that we use this format for the Asian Youth Netball Championship in Hong Kong (in 2015, which had 12 teams) and it worked well there, but this is the first time that the senior championship will use this format.

"The teams will be playing at their levels most of the time and the number of matches with lopsided scores, which are no fun to watch, will be cut down.

"Once we confirmed that 12 teams were coming, we circulated this format to all the teams and everyone was happy with it."

On paper, hosts Singapore, aiming for a top-two finish, will have a tougher campaign as they will face more higher-ranked teams than before. But national coach Natalie Milicich said the new format is "the best way for the top four teams to prepare for the final matches".

The New Zealander said: "The first two matches (in the first phase) are really about getting the players into the competition and getting everyone on court; the next three (in the second phase) will be really tough and will be all about performance, and will give the teams good preparation for the semi-finals and the final."

Her 14-strong team went on a nine-day New Zealand training tour last month, where they played against teams at several levels, including ANZ Premiership side Northern Mystics and Beko Netball League's Northern Marvels.

Milicich said the trip, where Singapore and New Zealand players trained together and played in mixed teams, gave her players more insight into game structure and organisation on court. She revealed that the final team of 12 will be unveiled "early next week".