Less than 50 days now until the Netball World Cup and the squad announcements have been coming thick and fast. I’ve read thoughts and opinions from plenty of people who have so much experience and knowledge of the sport; this blog therefore is by way of complete contrast…
Given what transpired in last year’s Commonwealth Games and January’s Quad series, it’s reasonable to suggest that the 15th World Cup is the most open in the tournament’s history.
If you believe in tradition”, there is only one likely final, with one almost certain winner; as Australia have appeared in the last seven finals, winning on six occasions. The “blip” came in 2003, when New Zealand lifted the trophy, but the Silver Ferns have finished runners-up no less than five times since losing out by a single point to the Diamonds in 1991.
Interestingly, there have been three single-goal victories (all by Australia) in the seven tournaments since a one-off game replaced a round-robin to determine the champions. One game was decided by two goals, another by three, so whatever happens, history suggests that the final could be a proverbial nail-biter.
The only side apart from Australia and New Zealand to have reached a final in the past 30 years is … actually it’s South Africa back in 1995. The Proteas’ 59-57 defeat of New Zealand in the first group stage ensured the Silver Ferns and Australian Diamonds were paired in the same second group and could not possibly contest the final.
The decisive goals in a thrilling finish (I’ve seen the video) came from Irene van Dyk (occasionally spelt van Dyck), a 6’4” shooter who would later become a New Zealand international. She retired in 2014 with 217 caps to her name and an international career shooting average of a remarkable 90%.
But I digress…
The fact remains that whether on past or recent form, or simply based on the quality of players at their respective disposal, New Zealand and Australia simply cannot be discounted – so what about England?
What the Roses achieved in the 2018 Commonwealth Games was pure theatre– the winning goal was one of the greatest and most emotive moments in any sport that I’ve ever seen. The victorious squad have given English netball such a huge profile; they are outstanding athletes, wonderful role models and definite contenders for the World Cup.
Tracey Neville’s squad is strong and looks well-balanced. The selection of Natalie Panagarry meant that (presumably) Iona Darroch missed out, which was a shame for Severn Stars’ young mid-courter, but based on the former’s versatility in attack and defence, Nat was probably the wise choice. My only change would have been to include Ama Agbeze ahead of an admittedly amazing talent in Fran Williams.
Whatever pressure the players may have experienced in Australia, it will be significantly greater when the girls take to the court in Liverpool. I accept that Ama may currently not be fully fit and her time at London Pulse hasn’t gone as well as she would have hoped; but we’re still seven weeks away from the start of competition and what Ama would bring to the squad surely extends way beyond what could have been a crucial contribution on court. The leaking of her omission from the squad was at best “unfortunate” (although “disgraceful” might be a more appropriate word); but Ama faced the cameras and spoke with all the dignity and passion that you’d expect from one of the country’s finest athletes and ambassadors…
Serena Guthrie has subsequently been named Roses captain. She is a strong character and I can imagine her being a powerful motivator. Every team will struggle at some point during a long and intense competition, and with plenty of experience around her, I suspect that Serena will be a positive source of inspiration in those difficult moments.
There’s no obvious reason to suggest the players won’t cope with the unprecedented (in netball terms) level of expectation, and they clearly have the class and ability to become world champions … but (and it’s a controversial but) I just don’t think this will be England’s year.
Before I expand on why, I will just say that Jamaica always have the ability to pull off a major surprise. To a certain extent they are the unknown quantity as they did not participate in the Quad Series, and they too have an impressive squad (including Jodi-Ann Ward who formed such a brilliant partnership with Sam Cook for Severn Stars in Super League). I sense that whilst they can turn over the best in the world on their day, the Sunshine Girls also tend to fine one team too good in the longer format…
Which brings me to South Africa. They too have an exceptional squad – I am a huge admirer of the outstanding Karla Pretorius, but the 12 selected by Norma Plummer is full of high-quality athletes, including Bongi Msomi, Maryka Holtzhausen (genuinely one of the nicest people you could wish to meet) and Shadine van der Merwe, who have all been plying their trade in Super League since the Quad Series.
In that series, South Africa pulled off what, at the time, was considered a shock win over England; they would have beaten New Zealand too, had netball’s equivalent of Alex Ferguson not been in charge of timekeeping. The Proteas clearly had a plan to play with an intensity and physicality to stifle the Roses attacking flair – and it worked. You could argue South Africa showed their hand too early, as Tracey Neville will surely have worked on a way to overcome similar tactics; but what if Norma Plummer can stay one step ahead?
Admittedly, England responded superbly to that loss by repeating their Commonwealth Games win over Australia. Clearly, there is so little to separate the top five squads, the strength and depth of each of which is guaranteed to be seriously tested; but in a competition that will surely be decided by small margins; what is the decisive factor is actually the coach?
I’ve tried to be objective, because I’m English and I obviously want to see what would be an historic England win; but from the admittedly limited amount of knowledge that I hope I have, I believe that Australia will be consistent enough to reach the final. Their opponents..?
I’m sure many will disagree, but I’m going to say South Africa…