- England 54 New Zealand 41
New Zealand may have reclaimed the world No2 ranking just before Christmas, but England proved yet again why it is they, and not Sunday’s opponents, who will pose the biggest threat to the dominant Australians at this summer’s World Cup.
England had beaten New Zealand on all three occasions they faced them last year – including on the way to winning Commonwealth gold – and they began their Quad Series campaign by extending that record with a 54-41 victory in Liverpool on Sunday.
It was not always plain sailing against a side whose aura has slipped over the past couple of years, but Tracey Neville’s team recovered from a frenetic first-half performance to put the game beyond doubt in a brilliant third quarter. It was a decisive period that saw the hosts score nine goals more than their opponents and the victory margin at the final whistle equalled their biggest ever win over the four-time world champions.
“I started playing netball 20 years ago and it was always about beating the world No1 and two,” said Neville, England head coach. “We wanted to be one of the teams that people looked at wanted to beat. I can clearly say now that we are, but there is a lot of work to go before the World Cup.
“In all honesty, the [Commonwealth] gold medal wasn’t the priority – it was the consistency of results.
“It was about beating world No1 consistently and we haven’t done that against Australia so at the moment it’s about bettering ourselves.”
That opportunity to prove their Commonwealth victory over Australia was no fluke will come next weekend in London and on this evidence England look a formidable force.
Unlike her Antipodean counterparts, whose sides have changed markedly since those Commonwealth Games, Neville has been able to retain a familiar feel to her squad, with all seven starting players on Sunday in possession of Commonwealth gold medals.
Most significant, perhaps, was the talismanic presence of Jo Harten back at goal shooter having recovered from the knee injury that had kept her out for much of the winter.
It is difficult to overstate Harten’s importance to the national side. It is not as though England are short of shooting options – Rachel Dunn was on the bench with more than a decade of international experience and Helen Housby is adept at playing shooter if required – but when you are the best in the world, as Harten arguably is, there is no side that would not dearly love her presence.
Yet despite Harten shooting at 100 per cent for much of the opening half, Neville soon cut a frustrated figure on the sidelines as defensive pressure at either end made for a messy encounter.
A 25-24 half-time England lead reflected the trouble a dogged New Zealand side were causing the hosts. “God, we’ve got to step it up second half,” was England captain Serena Guthrie’s honest assessment at the break.
They did just that. By the end of the third quarter that slender one-point advantage had become 10 as player of the match Eboni Usoro-Brown marshalled a resolute England defence that routinely denied New Zealand the chance to enter the shooting circle.
A rare sending off for New Zealand goal defence Karin Burger ended any hopes of a fightback and the Liverpool crowd were able to relax long before the 13-goal victory margin was confirmed.
“It was a really hard-fought game so to come off third quarter with that scoreline, I’m incredibly proud of the girls,” said Guthrie.
“We weren’t quite finishing off as we’d like in the first half and didn’t quite feel comfortable out there in general.
“We kept letting them back in the game so we needed to tidy things up and be more ruthless, which is what we did.”
Having never won a Quad Series before, England’s victory keeps them on course for a potential decider against Australia at London’s Copper Box next Sunday after the world No 1 side survived a scare in their opening encounter against South Africa.
Briefly threatening to end a run of 38 defeats against their opponents, South Africa forged into a five-goal lead at the end of the first quarter only for Australia’s quality to shine through for a 62-45 win. England face South Africa on Saturday before Sunday’s rematch between last year’s Commonwealth Games finalists.