Call it karma. Less than a week after England stole a World Cup from under the careful moustaches of New Zealand’s cricketers, the Silver Ferns took a measure of revenge for their menfolk. They beat the Roses by just two goals in a nerve shredder that denied Tracey Neville’s women their first Netball World Cup final – and indeed, their best ever shot at the trophy.
Neville blamed “basic errors” for the 47-45 defeat and the captain, Serena Guthrie, denied the emotion of a home semi-final had got to the players. “That has nothing to do with our performance today,” said Guthrie. “We had two teams going against each other with different tactics and we didn’t execute well enough.”
But Guthrie conceded nearly three times as many penalties as the unflappable Laura Langman in the rival captains’ battle at centre, and the goal shooter Jo Harten, who missed her first two shots of the game, said her team “wavered at critical moments”. “Trying to control nerves, there’s no scientific cure for that,” said Harten. “In the heat of the moment and with the crowd roaring you on, balls go astray.”
The Wheel of Liverpool on the docks – stationary throughout this tournament for “essential maintenance” – was finally taking on passengers. The wheel was turning: it felt like a sign and perhaps it was – just not for the Roses. Instead a long-stalled New Zealand team, that finished with its worst ever placing at last year’s Commonwealth Games, were back in action, thanks to the coaching of Noeline Taurua and the return of a number of experienced (previously out of favour) players like Langman.
Guthrie described England’s start as “disappointing”, although in the stands the emotion was more like collective shock. New Zealand scored five unanswered goals in just over three minutes. Maria Folau – booed, for the first time this week, as she took to the court – had spent the day before this game designer shopping with her husband, Israel. She demonstrated her own elan from the outset, curving the ball into the net in silky parabolas from every conceivable position, and even some inconceivable ones.
It was New Zealand’s defence, however, that was England’s thorniest problem. Jane Watson’s long arm was everywhere, tipping balls out of the shooters reach, and her zone defence alongside Casey Kopua kept Harten and Helen Housby so physically constrained that at times all four women seemed glued together in a single clump.
And yet England bounced back. By the end of the first quarter they had reduced the gap to three goals; and in the second they looked, for a time, the team more likely to win. Folau had missed her first attempt after the break, the ball skewing a full 270 degrees around the rim. England grabbed the turnover and hunted for position until Housby was under the post – she missed but Harten scored from the rebound and followed up with a brave shot from halfway back in the circle. Housby added two of her own to draw level at 13-13.
As New Zealand threatened to string together another lead, Neville sent on Natalie Haythornthwaite and told her shooters to switch bibs. Housby got in Watson’s face and Neville’s shooters totalled 15 for the quarter. Going into half-time England were three goals up, and several inflatable clappers had exploded from excitement.
But for the remainder Watson’s tentacles were everywhere. At the other end the goal shooter Ameliaranne Ekenasio missed only once all match, the one error coming in the 52nd minute. “We didn’t learn our lessons quickly enough,” said Neville. “We seemed to be chasing the game, which is something we haven’t done in this tournament.”
England lost the lead 11 minutes into the second half and never regained it. With three minutes to play Housby dragged them back to within two goals, as the England bench screamed their approval. But no one could fashion a turnover and New Zealand began a game of playground catch to run down the clock.
Neville’s swansong will not now be a World Cup final against Australia – a team that brazened out their own tense semi-final while barely using their first-string players – but a bronze-medal match against South Africa. Phlegmatic after the game, she praised her players and a “world-class” opposition and noted the impact of Layla Guscoth’s absence: “We gave it our all but didn’t have the legs.”
Harten, meanwhile, was “utterly devastated. That was the most realistic shot we’ve had of getting into the World Cup final and we’ve just fallen short of our goal … We’ll pick ourselves up and go again tomorrow, that’s for sure. We don’t want to finish on a loss. We want to take home a bronze medal tomorrow. But yeah, absolutely gutted.”