Once considered the domain of schoolgirls in little pleated skirts, the sport of netball is earning a bit more respect these days. It's a fast paced, highly skilful sport requiring speed, athleticism, tactical thinking and the ability to look good in little pleated skirts.
Played mostly in Commonwealth countries, it's a sport that, curiously, doesn't rely on a net, although the ball is, of course, compulsory. Its foundations come from basketball, although the ball is smaller, the ring is smaller and higher, and there is no backboard. Teams consist of seven players, who are each assigned a position, and get to wear a very funky bib with their position initials written on it. There's a good reason for this.
Each position is restricted to certain areas of the court. The court is divided into three areas, very sensibly named 'thirds'. In each end third, there is a semi-circle around the goal post known as the 'goal circle' - not quite so sensible, considering it's a semi-circle; but this is not the time to get geometrically pernickety. Goals can only be scored from within this goal circle.
Goal Shooter (GS)
As the name suggests, this is one of the two players who are allowed to shoot the goals. The GS is only allowed in the offensive third and the goal circle.
Goal Attack (GA)
The GA is the other player who can shoot goals, and is allowed in the centre third, the offensive third and the goal circle. This is usually the position with the most glory (and that's important to know).
Wing Attack (WA)
The WA is allowed in the centre third and the goal third, but not the goal circle. Basically, their job is to lead for the ball in the centre third, then feed it into the GA or GS. This is the ideal position for that nippy little player who's too short to be a goaler.
The Centre can roam the whole court, with the exception of the goal circles at either end. The Centre takes the Centre Pass at the restart of play after a goal is scored, and then runs up and down the court. She is usually identifiable by her expression of exhaustion.
Wing Defence (WD)
The WD is only allowed in the centre third and the defensive third, but not in the defensive goal circle. The WD's job is to mark the opposing WA, and thereby cut down the opposition's ability to get the ball into their goal circle. It's a position that involves a fair amount of running and arm waving.
Goal Defence (GD)
The GD is allowed in the centre third, the defensive third, and goal circle. Her job is to stop the opposing GA from scoring goals, and one of the ways she does this is by defending the shot for goal - a manoeuvre that requires balancing on one foot and leaning as far over the ball with one hand as possible (remembering to remain three feet from the shooter).
Goal Keeper (GK)
The GK is allowed only in the defensive third including the goal circle. Her direct opponent is the GS and it's in her best interest to be very tall and good at stopping the GS from getting goals. She has to defend the shots too, in the same extremely elegant manner described above.
The rules of netball differ fundamentally from basketball in many ways. Most obvious to the casual observer is the rule which prohibits dribbling. Players may not bounce the ball to themselves, and cannot run with the ball. When a player catches the ball, the first foot that touches the ground when they land is known as the grounded foot. While they are allowed to take that foot off the ground again, they must pass the ball on again before regrounding it. The ball must be passed within three seconds, but it can't be thrown across an entire third without being touched. So no buzzer-beating court-length passes.
When defending a pass or shot for goal, players must be three feet from the player with the ball. At all other times players may be as close to one another as they like, but cannot touch them, as netball is a non-contact sport... theoretically.
Infringements of these rules, and many others, results in a penalty pass to the opposition. If the penalty is for obstruction1 or contact2, then the offending player must stand beside the player taking the penalty; which means that they can't defend the pass, thus penalising their team by creating a shortage of players further down the court.
Play is continuous for four quarters of 15 minutes. Time is stopped only for injuries, and substitutions can only be made between quarters or in the event of an injury.
Netball is an extremely fast paced game, with lots of quick passing and fast leading with frequent directional changes. As a result of this, it has one of the highest rates of knee injuries amongst its players. In fact, some might say you're not a real netballer until you've got the knee reconstruction scars to prove it; but those who do say it are usually old and cynical and probably shouldn't be listened to.
Australia are the reigning world champions of netball, but there is a long rivalry between Australia and New Zealand. In Australia, participation levels are extremely high, and the game is not just limited to girls. At indoor sports centres around the country, mixed netball is a bit of a hit, and allows the guys to realise just how athletic a sport it is. It may also give them an opportunity to display dazzling levels of unco-ordination; at which point, the game usually degenerates to a form of rugby, which ultimately leads to tears. All good clean fun, then.