Tired legs and a terrible third quarter dashed England’s Netball World Cup dreams in Liverpool as New Zealand edged a raucous semi-final 47-45 to ensure the sport’s Antipodean dominance goes on.
Tracey Neville’s team had battled back from a nightmare start to grab a three-goal advantage at half-time, but uncharacteristic errors meant they failed to maintain that momentum and now face the unpalatable prospect of a third place play-off.
Waiting in the final were Australia, brandishing all the delicious baggage of the 2018 Commonwealth Games gold medal match, but instead Neville must rally her team to face a South African side they have already beaten well in the tournament.
Neville, who refused to discuss her earlier assertions that she will step down from her post after Sunday’s match, said: “I’m actually proud – I think the girls gave it their all.
“We didn’t start well and some of the basic errors are something we’ve not done in this tournament and we didn’t have the legs at the end to get back in the game.
“When you come out of a quarter and get the game back in your hands and lead by three, you come out in the next quarter and expect to be able to chug away at that scoreline, but we just didn’t have the legs to be able to do it.”
England’s emphatic group phase win over South Africa had made them favourites to beat the Silver Ferns, who nevertheless had gained some degree of redemption for a poor campaign by pushing Australia to within one goal in their final group stage game on Thursday.
But consecutive defeats to England, including by 13 goals in the Quad Series in January, put the initiative firmly in the hands of the hosts, who were seeking to end a streak of six consecutive Australia versus New Zealand finals.
Yet if they had all the momentum, the statistics were certainly against them, with New Zealand having triumphed in all but one of their 14 previous World Cup meetings, England’s solitary success coming in Auckland in 1975.
Evident booing greeted New Zealand goal shooter Maria Folau – who has previously defended her husband Israel’s controversial religious beliefs – during the pre-game introductions, and the capacity crowd maintained their unashamedly partisan atmosphere throughout.
Folau was evidently unaffected, scoring four from four as her team strode into a 5-0 lead within four minutes, while the uncharacteristic errors which would come to prove fatal to England’s chances were encapsulated by a poor star by the normally dependable Jo Harten.
New Zealand led by three at the end of the first quarter but a tactical change by Neville, who shifted Harten and Helen Housby up front and introduced Natalie Haythornthwaite, made a dramatic difference as England stormed back to lead 24-21 at the interval.
But just when England thought they had got a strangle-hold on the game, they fell behind again, a rare giveaway by captain Serena Guthrie sealing a sorry third quarter which they lost by six to hand New Zealand a 36-33 lead.
Despite sporadically reducing the deficit to two in a frantic final quarter, England could not claw themselves back in the face of the relentless accuracy of Ameliaranne Ekenasio who converted all but one of her 26 shots on goal.
Despite evident early nerves, captain Guthrie insisted the occasion had not got to her team, and said it was her intention to rally them for Sunday’s game and ensure a place on the podium.
“I think everyone alluded to the fact there might be more pressure again but we have really enjoyed it,” said Guthrie. “It has nothing to do with our performance today.
“At the end of the day we just had two teams going against each other with different tactics and we didn’t execute well enough for a semi-final.
“We can’t sit back and wonder, ‘What if?’ We have still got a game to play and as long as we go out and put on a good performance I will be proud of the girls.
“It hurts when you get in a position to win the game and then you don’t. That is the big we need to get over, and get the debrief out of the way so we can move forward to tomorrow.
“There is still a bronze medal up for grabs, and we would love to stand on a podium on home soil. That would still be a very proud moment for us.”