With access to more court real estate than any other player, a centre can have a huge influence on a netball game, but as Peter Parker knows, with great power, comes great responsibility.
The centre is the glue that holds both ends of the court together, acting as the conduit between attack and defence, meaning they need to be equally talented in the disparate disciplines. Centres are unique in netball, as the only player whose role is not explicitly defined as offensive or defensive by their bib.
Centres are traditionally nimble, shorter than key position players, but often boasting the best “engine” of any player on a side. Often also accomplished at wing attack and wing defence, centres have to be fit, fast and ferocious.
A centre’s to-do list is extensive. They must deliver their team’s centre pass, execute set plays, control tempo, take throw-ins, work with the wing attack to supply centimetre-perfect ball to shooters in their preferred scoring position, reward defenders by picking tips, mark their direct opponent and run … constantly run, from one end to the other of the 30.5m x 15.2m court.
Only the goal rings are off-limits to the centre, meaning they generally do the most kilometres of any player, with the possible exception of a goal attack or goal defence in certain matches.
As well as pure gut running, short exertion, high-intensity movement is a centre’s stock in trade, as they make leads, cut back and re-offer, run decoys and even set basketball-style screens for team-mates, making anaerobic, as well as aerobic fitness, central to their success.
Core strength to hold position on the circle edge and absorb repeated bumps in what, in some misty-eyed quarters, is still considered a “non-contact sport”, agility and smarts to weave through crowded court space and endurance to run out 60 minutes are also vital.
Centres need slick balls skills, in close and at a distance, and as one of the few players on the court to deliver bounce passes, must know which pass to use when. They also need the temperament and patience to build connections with often fastidious shooters, as well as creativity and highly-evolved court-craft.
Along with a tall, holding shooter, a centre with explosive speed, a strong body, flawless hands and poise can – and often does – win matches at domestic and international level.
Best in the business
Thirty-year-old Laura Langman – who played 141 straight Tests for New Zealand after her making her debut in 2005 aged 19 – is widely recognised as one of the best centres in the world. The 173cm dynamo says the centre exists to serve the team.
“I describe the role as the conductor. As a centre, you are there to ensure things flow and that stress-free ball can be delivered,” Langman says. “You need to be cool and calm, and able to control the tempo of the game. You also need the finesse that feeding shooters requires.”
Long-time Langman fan turned fierce on-court rival, the 23-year-old Australia international Kim Ravaillion, says playing centre is not just about physical fitness, but intellectual horsepower too.
“It’s obvious you need to be fit and strong and have the energy to actually play out the game, but you need to be able to think under pressure, too,” says Ravaillion, considered one of the fittest players in the game.
“As that player through the middle, you are the steadier, the link from attack to defence and you have to be able to be smart in your decision-making.”
Serving two masters
While some traditionalists consider centre an attacking position, Langman and Ravaillion both say a quality centre has two masters.
“You really have to be a specialist at both defence and attack,” says Ravaillion, who has a Netball World Cup gold, Commonwealth Games gold and two ANZ Championship premiership medals to her name.
“There are seven defenders out on the court these days, so you have to refine both parts of your game and make sure you’re not a hole in that defence.” Being able to seamlessly switch from one to the other is pivotal too, she adds.
Langman says the focus of the position has “totally changed” in that regard in recent years – especially through the 10-year life of the now-defunct trans-Tasman ANZ Championship. “In the past, maybe you had a centre who largely dominated in attack or defence, whereas now, the centres coming through are very strong in both aspects. Kim Rav is a great example of that,” Langman says.
Above almost anything else, repeat efforts characterise a centre’s game, according to Langman, a pilates devotee. The stamina to go again and again … and again, throughout a match, is as important as having “an aerobic engine”.
“You have to be able to make those repeated efforts, at high intensity. You need to keep going and you need to be able to sustain that intensity as long as the circle defenders do, in the case of defence. That top-end anaerobic requirement is massive.”
Ravaillion, one of the few players in the game who can go toe-to-toe with Langman, says the number of repeat efforts is constantly on the rise. Resting isn’t an option, she says. “You don’t want to be resting on the circle edge even, you’ve got to be always moving. That’s something I need to work on.”
The body-on-body, ever-increasing physicality of modern netball makes raw strength a must for the modern centre, too. Langman, who has a reputation for being a beast in the gym, says it’s all relative though.
“My philosophy as a player has always been that I want to be as strong as I am big. I love getting into the gym, but I’m not trying to be Arnie [Schwarzenegger]. Not every session has to be a gut-buster. Speed sessions, stretching, sprints, flexibility are all as important as getting into the gym,” she says.
Langman loves pilates – which uses resistance and weights to build strength. “I do it at least once a week, but if I had time, I’d do it every day. I think it has made a massive contribution to keeping on top of my niggles over the years. I’m fortunate I’ve never had a major injury and those that I have had, I have been able to handle.”
Langman has missed just a handful of matches through injury during her 12-year career, but amazingly, never a Test for her country.
Pilates helps Langman absorb the repeated body blows that come a centre’s way. “Nowadays, you have to be able to take the hit and play on, absorb it, maybe even get off-balance, but still deliver the ball. Maybe in the past, there would have been a stoppage and you would have had a chance to re-set, but now you’ve got to be able to take it, and even deliver a good pass as you fall out of court.”
The mid-courters Ravaillion grew up idolising, former Australian captain Natalie von Bertouch and Langman herself, are both super-fit. “I remember watching both of them, thinking you could never tell when they got tired, just amazingly fit,” Ravaillion says.
“The physicality of our game, between from my first year and now, has stepped up. It’s gotten more physical and it’s faster than ever. The game’s evolving. It just means I need to be stronger, fitter and smarter.”
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