England set sights on Australia after thrilling comeback win over New Zealand

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Jade Clarke - GETTY IMAGES
Jade Clarke - GETTY IMAGES

England 49 - 46 New Zealand

Trailing by eight-goals before the break, England looked down and almost out in this box-office battle between the Commonwealth and world champions.

That was until Jade Clarke, this country's most capped netball player of all time, was hauled on court to prevent further collateral damage. Within seconds, Clarke, on her 185th Test appearance, helped Jess Thirlby’s comeback queens transform an eight-goal deficit into a stunning three-goal victory to maintain their perfect start to their Quad Series campaign.

Significantly, this was the Roses’ third consecutive win over New Zealand - having beaten the Silver Ferns 2-1 in their own backyard last summer. It is further proof that England have now finally got the upper hand over one of the traditional heavyweights of world netball. The other, however, is lying in wait.

Digging deep against an inexperienced Silver Ferns outfit was the ideal warm-up for Australia, who England face on Tuesday. Owing to the pandemic, it will be the first meeting between both nations since England memorably stole the Commonwealth title under their noses in 2018.

Asked whether her high-flying side could beat the world’s number-one ranked nation, Thirlby was defiant. “Why not? It would be a bit of a waste of time having just pushed ourselves through that to not give it a good go,” said England’s head coach.

“The way in which New Zealand forced us to play a little bit is great preparation for a match against The Diamonds, because we’re going to have to be really clinical at keeping the ball and finding small gaps in their defence.”

Jess Thirlby has backed her side to beat Australia on Tuesday - GETTY IMAGES
Jess Thirlby has backed her side to beat Australia on Tuesday - GETTY IMAGES

England initially struggled to do just that against New Zealand, who were visibly fired up after being thrashed 53-39 in their Quad Series opener against Australia. Thirlby cut a pensive figure courtside and there was barely anything left of her chewed-up pen by the time she decided to make a decisive change mid-way through the second quarter.

On came Clarke, whose impact in the mid-court was instantaneous as England set about clawing their way back. She brought a fresh energy as her side began penetrating the final third with greater resolve and outfoxed the long levers of New Zealand’s goalkeeper and star player, Kelly Jury, to go in level on 25 goals apiece at the break.

“We weren’t really punching through and they were covering our lines quite well and jumping in front of the forward space so Jade just came in and completely carved up that attacking end,” conceded Serena Guthrie, the England captain. “That was a big turning point for us in the game.”

Guthrie herself was sublime in the third quarter, often termed the ‘championship quarter’ in netball because it is where a game is often won or lost. She won a series of key deflections and interceptions - including one in the dying seconds to edge England into a three-goal lead and set up a pulsating last 15 minutes.

Threading passes in straight lines and close triangles, England’s safe but effective play continued to irk the Silver Ferns, who had no answer to the Roses’ resilience. Making it two-from-two in this series means England are likely to meet Australia in Wednesday’s final and make up for lost time because of disruptions caused last year by the pandemic.

“I did actually want to play Australia more than once when this competition was spoken about and given we haven’t been on tour to Australia last autumn [because of Covid] it’s brilliant that we’ve given ourselves a chance to hit out against them twice,” said an elated Thirlby.

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