Piling into the Zoom call one by one, Fenna Agnew, Clodagh Bottomley, and Millie Quayle are ready to talk all things netball for the next twenty minutes. They are also ready to take on Oxford tomorrow (26/02) in this year’s Varsity match; sixty minutes of hard-fought competition on the court at the other place. But there’s no nerves, just three focused minds.

Bottomley, who’s going into her second Varsity encounter, has been a stellar shooter for the Blues this year. A standout performance in Cambridge’s 53-32 win over Nottingham just over three weeks ago springs to mind, driving her side on the attacking end towards a well-deserved victory. Reaching the fifty mark, however, was not the story of the last clash with Oxford, as the Light Blues suffered a tough 41-24 defeat. Reflecting on this result, Bottomley recalls: “Because of Covid and it being my first year of Varsity, we really didn’t have much training as a team in the run-up to the match, which meant that we didn’t get very settled as an attacking combination.”

Bottomley in action for the Blues against NottinghamDik Ng/DKNG Photography

But this time round, the Cambridge women have been a different beast entirely. Winning all but one game this season - bitterly falling to Nottingham Trent in their most recent matchup in the semi-finals of the Midlands Conference Cup - the Blues find themselves comfortably perched on top of the Midlands Tier 2 division. “I think after having a whole year together,” says Bottomley, “Rachel [Mercer], Millie, and I, and then our two other shooters in Caitlin [Reilly] and Zöe [Starbuck], we’ve really worked out where to place the ball for me to get it. I’ve got more confident in my shooting, and I think we’ve built those connections to know where each attacker is at all times.”

“I firmly believe Oxford are beatable, and we have the advantage of being the underdogs and going out there with nothing to lose”

Quayle, captain of the Blues side, also chimes in on the current situation of the team: “I think we’re definitely in a much better position than last year, as the team played so little together that we never really got to play as a team.” Since the previous Varsity match, Cambridge has seen a few natural departures in light of graduations and years abroads, with Agnew’s defensive end remaining the same over the last three years yet both the midcourt and front end experiencing chops and changes. “[But] it hasn’t felt an issue at all,” Quayle affirms, “I’d say we’re playing some of the best team netball that I’ve ever been a part of.”

Agnew has been a defensive force for Cambridge over the last three yearsDik Ng/DKNG Photography

It’s important to note that the success of the Blues is just one facet of the club’s overall thriving and upward trajectory. Cambridge University Ladies Netball Club (CULNC) boasts four teams that will engage in their own battles with Oxford tomorrow, along with a budding, versatile college system. As this year’s club President, Agnew praises the work of college teams in establishing such a robust league system: “It’s been really good this year that, after the disruption of Covid, people have thrown themselves into college netball, especially freshers and second-years that didn’t get to play last year.”

“Netball is in a unique position in that it’s a predominantly women’s sport [...] but when there’s no male standard everyone is just subtly rude about it [...] because they’re not afraid of being called out for saying sexist things”

As one of the most subscribed sports at the University, however, Agnew recognises that it’s key CULNC lays out a suitable pathway for college players to break into the light blue setup, not only for the sake of accessibility but also to ensure that uni-level talent doesn’t slip through the cracks. Enter the club’s development squad: “It’s aimed at college captains and people who really enjoy college netball and want to play more,” Agnew explains, with sessions running every Saturday morning. “If people are looking to get into the university squad, that’s really where we want to see them.”

Despite netball’s success at Cambridge, Quayle insists that “it doesn’t quite get the recognition it deserves”, paling in comparison to setups seen at the likes of Loughborough University. She continues: “For the number of people who play college netball, it just doesn’t get a proportionate level of awareness.” Stipulating as to why this is the case, Quayle briefly touches on the regressive attitudes that she and her teammates have encountered: “We all still hear comments like: ‘netball is a s*** sport’, or ’it’s like basketball but you can’t run’. Netball is in a unique position in that it’s a predominantly women’s sport and the best teams are women ones, and I think the sexism is more obvious when you’ve got a man being rude about women’s football, but when there’s no male standard everyone is just subtly rude about it and can be ruder about it because they’re not afraid of being called out for saying sexist things.”

Captain Quayle has led her side to a near-flawless record this seasonDik Ng/DKNG Photography

It’s poignantly clear that such cultural issues and stigmas will exceed the events of tomorrow, but Quayle turns her attention to Varsity nonetheless: “For the Blues, in particular, there’s no escaping the fact that we’re the underdogs on paper. With that being said, I firmly believe Oxford are beatable, and we have the advantage of being the underdogs and going out there with nothing to lose.” Oxford’s side sit in the division above Cambridge, with four wins and four losses currently placing them fourth.


Mountain View

Netball Blues progress to semi-finals after beating Nottingham

“The unusual and great thing about the team this year has been our mental strength,” Quayle describes, “so we tend to be really quite good at fourth quarters, which I have never had in a team before. I think a lot of that comes down to trusting our shooters, so the defence know that, if they put the effort in and get the ball over, it’s going to be rewarded.”

Agnew also mentions her preparation for the game as a defensive player: “Thea [Krumins], Clare [Pearson], and I have been practising the switches and not getting drawn into moving players, making sure that we’re playing our game and it’s something that we’ve been working on since the beginning of the year.” She concludes: “I’m feeling good about it but obviously a little apprehensive going into an unknown game.”

CULNC will make the two-hour journey to Oxford tomorrow morning, with fourth team Wrens in action at 9am sharp and the Blues finally taking to the court at 3pm. In what will be a long day of netball with inevitable highs and lows, Quayle sums it up best: “Regardless of everything, it’s a great opportunity to play in front of friends and family, and it’s such a great day.”

This year’s Netball Varsity match will be livestreamed here, with coverage starting from 9am tomorrow (26/02).