England kept their hopes of a first Quad Series title alive after overcoming an eight-goal deficit to defeat New Zealand 49-46 and book their spot in the final.
After losing a first international series to the Roses back in September, and then being hammered on Saturday at the hands of old foes Australia, just how New Zealand were going to approach England was a point of intrigue. That question was quickly answered.
Physical, breathless, the first 15 minutes packed a punch. Bodies bounced off bodies as New Zealand quickly took ownership of space, a familiar modus operandi from the Ferns. Twisted frames and tightly delivered bounce passes forced England into an unwanted thinking game. Though Saturday’s player of the match Layla Guscoth showed flashes of class it did little in the face of the New Zealand defence running riot in their third. In a matter of moments, the Roses trailed by six.
When it looked like everything was going New Zealand’s way, and no doubt how Dame Noeline Taurua intended, something not even the Ferns’ head coach could control took over. Seeing their side down by eight the Copper Box crowd intervened. Voices cried, inflatable sticks slapped together and, on cue the Roses shifted gear. Drawing on the energy of their surroundings, England found their feet and began delivering the kind of netball that has seen them be so successful. Sharp angles, tight defence and with the late introduction of England’s most-capped player Jade Clarke, New Zealand were muted. Their goal margin disappeared and the score at half-time was poised at 25-25.
It is no secret that the biggest challenge ahead for the head coach Jess Thirlby is Commonwealth Games selection. With squad depth not ever seen in England’s history what each player can offer will factor heavily in her decision-making. Not going down without a fight, the 38-year-old Clarke made her strongest bid yet for a spot in the 12. Taking on the mantle of centre, Clarke released the England skipper Serena Guthrie to wing defence and the new combination proved fundamentally decisive to the game’s outcome. “That was a big turning point for us,” said the captain after the match.
In the third quarter the two players, with their combined 10 years of international netball experience, allowed England to clinch the lead. The goalkeeper Eboni Usoro-Brown and Guscoth, thriving off the output of the Clarke-Guthrie pendulum in front of them, continued to pick off ball keeping the Roses ahead as things went toe-to-toe.
The never-say-die Ferns continued their pursuit deep into the fourth quarter, but the Roses did not relinquish control. The stalwart Helen Housby, shooting at 96% throughout the game, gritted her teeth as the New Zealand defence desperately pressured her but not even their best efforts could stem her impact. As the buzzer sounded signalling the onslaught was over, the Box cheered in approval – the Roses were finals bound.
“It’s not ideal to go down obviously,” said Guthrie. “We had to really fight to get back. Ideally, we want to get in the game earlier and stay up in the game but sometimes you’ve got to play what’s in front of your face. I was just really proud of the team effort today.”
Next up for England is Australia. The world No 1 team, like the Roses, are two from two and Thirlby was thankful for Sunday’s encounter ahead of Tuesday’s challenge. Thirlby said: “The way that we’ve had to play that game and the way in which New Zealand forced us to play a little bit is a great preparation for a match against the Diamonds.”