Even though England did not win the Netball World Cup, they can be justifiably proud of what they have achieved and where they are as a team.
Within the last 18 months, they have won a major global title for the first time in their history and established themselves as one of the top three netball nations in the world alongside Australia and New Zealand.
They also possess a fantastic team that features some of the world’s most exciting players: Geva Mentor, who is a brilliant, athletic goalkeeper; Serena Guthrie, a phenomenal centre with great stamina; and the fearsome shooting pair of Jo Harten and Helen Housby.
And, to top it all off, England Roses played some superb netball in front of capacity crowds at the M&S Bank Arena in Liverpool to secure a bronze medal. It was a fitting, if bittersweet, send-off for their brilliant Head Coach Tracey Neville, who is taking a break from the sport.
Roses miss golden opportunity
When you consider these reasons to be cheerful, a bronze medal at the World Cup is far from a disaster. However, it was undoubtedly a missed opportunity for two reasons.
Firstly, England will be disappointed not to capitalise on the form they showed in most of their matches. They played some fantastic netball and looked in excellent shape to follow their Gold Coast glory with a World Cup win.
Secondly, the trophy was there for the taking because Australia, the No.1 team in the world, were not at their best. It would have been an injustice if the Diamonds had won the tournament and they will have to assess their displays and work out whether they simply under-performed or whether they have not fully adapted to their new-look squad which features five changes to the roster they used at the 2018 Commonwealth Games.
England shine to secure semi-final against New Zealand
The Roses breezed past the minnows in the preliminary stage. They thrashed Samoa 90-24, hammered Scotland 70-34 and swept aside Uganda 64-32.
England then raised their game in the second group stage to beat the World’s No.2 team Jamaica 56-48 and take down Trinidad and Tobago 72-46.
Finally, the Roses peaked during a stunning display that sunk South Africa 58-47 in their final group game.
In the first quarter, the England players came out like women possessed. Their movement was razor-sharp, every pass was precise and Harten and Housby were clinical in front of goal.
Consequently, they dazzled spectators and opposition alike as they stormed to a 19-11 lead in thrilling style. While they did not maintain that same extraordinary standard for the rest of the game, they remained in complete control of proceedings to close out the victory.
That win was supposed to secure an easier semi-final against the second-placed team in the other group. In reality, it earned England a meeting with eventual champions New Zealand.
Disciplined New Zealand punish sloppy England display
The Silver Ferns took on the Roses with a clear game plan. They sought to nullify England’s attacking threat and restrict their opportunities as much as possible.
This put extra pressure on Harten and Housby to score when they had the chance. Unfortunately for the hosts, the Giants Netball star had a rare off-day (at one stage, a Sky Sports graphic showed she had scored with jus 62% of her shots).
By contrast, New Zealand’s shooters, especially Maria Folau, barely missed a shot. This meant that Harten’s struggles, along with some poor passing, left England in all sorts of trouble at 5-0 and then 19-14 behind.
They almost won in spite of this. Neville made a smart decision midway through the second quarter to replace Chelsea Pitman with Natalie Haythornthwaite at wing attack and switch Harten and Housby around.
The change worked immediately. Haythornthwaite found space intelligently and repeatedly fed club teammate Housby. The New South Wales Swifts’ shooter duly did the bulk of the scoring as England scored ten goals to New Zealand’s one during a remarkable spell in the final minutes of the first-half that propelled the hosts into a 24-21 lead.
Sadly for the Roses, this turnaround proved to be a false dawn. The Silver Ferns dominated possession in the third quarter and won it 15-9 to move 36-33 ahead. England recovered from this setback to remain in contention, but they never managed to draw level and eventually lost 47-45.
The Roses’ dream of World Cup glory was over because of one poor performance. It was hard to take, and the players’ despair was obvious at the final whistle. To their credit, they picked themselves up to beat South Africa 58-42 the next day and claim bronze medals.
The end of an era for Clarke and Dunn?
While many of the England squad still have plenty of years in the game ahead of them, the end is seemingly nigh for the two oldest members of the squad.
Jade Clarke is the Roses’ most-capped player and she was named player of the match for her performance in the third-place play-off. However, she is 35 and the next major tournament is three years away, so it is difficult to imagine her lining up at the Commonwealth Games in 2022.
Rachel Dunn is a year older than Clarke and she only returned to the squad at the start of the year after missing out on selection for the Gold Coast in 2018, so this World Cup always seemed likely to be her swansong. On the flip side, she has never relied on speed or bundles of energy so maybe she can carry on for a few more years.
World Cup showcases Netball at its best
The Netball World Cup was a huge success and a joyous occasion from start to finish. It featured world-class netball from the best teams, whole-hearted effort from the smaller nations and noisy, good-natured capacity crowds for most of the sessions. And it was all played out in a venue that was ideal for the occasion within a vibrant city famous for its enthusiasm for sport.
The big event buzz was obvious everywhere. It was on the faces of families on the train to Liverpool, in the scores of fans at Lime Street station, and on the faces of fans throughout the city.
Around the venue itself, which is situated next to the Albert Dock, there was a net for the public to practise their shots, a couple of sponsors’ tables, a merchandise stall and a few photo points (including a ferris wheel decked out in Vitality Netball World Cup finery). And everywhere you looked, there were smiling faces. There were girls with their mothers, girls in groups, women in groups and a handful of mixed groups. It was wonderful to see.
Inside the M&S Bank Arena, the atmosphere was amazing. The crowd got behind every team (with the occasional exception of Australia, who they sometimes booed like a pantomime villain) and cheered England with every breath in their lungs.
No netball player or fan could wish for anything more, and the sport seems in superb health as Liverpool hands over the hosting reins to Cape Town in 2023. Let us hope the South Africans can maintain the momentum England have set in motion.