Having beaten New Zealand 64-57 in extra time in their opening match of the Quad Series, England return to the Copper Box tonight to play world champions Australia. In light of their recent form, Beth Shine asks former England captain Pamela Cookey whether the present Roses can realise their potential and emulate the success of the women’s cricket, rugby and football teams by winning at the forthcoming Commonwealth Games
There is a feeling within the netball community of England that something big is brewing. For the last few years the sport has been on the cusp of a great leap forward. It has the television coverage it has craved for so long, with both paid-for and terrestrial TV showcasing the sport, and it has a dedicated fan base courtside with sold-out arenas for domestic and international matches. So what remains? Perhaps a win for England in a major tournament is what is needed to set the sport alight and send it into a whole new stratosphere.
The World Cup-winning cricket and rugby teams have shown what success on the world stage can do for women’s sport. It has also been widely acknowledged that the Lionesses’ run to third place at the 2015 World Cup was the catalyst for the growth of women’s football, both at professional and grassroots levels. So could English success at the Commonwealth Games (essentially netball’s Olympics) be the final piece of the jigsaw?
Former England captain Pamela Cookey believes the tide is turning for netball, with all three matches of the Quad Series played at the Copper Box sold out. “It’s fantastic for the sport,” she says. “For a number of years, netball has been on the cusp of something big, and it’s all starting to happen. There are so many people coming to games now and watching on TV, people are talking about netball so much more. There’s still a way to go, but we’re definitely going in the right direction.”
The present England squad is full of potential, with some of the most talented players on the planet pulling on the red dress. However, there is the feeling that they come up just short when it matters, so often leading matches only to end up on the receiving end of narrow defeats, notably to Australia and New Zealand. Their victory last year in Australia in the ‘Fast Five’ World Series – a souped-up version of netball with just five players, power plays, rolling substitutions and shooting allowed from outside the circle – showed that they can mix it with the best. So the Quad Series between the top four sides in the world (Australia, New Zealand, England and South Africa), is a chance to hone preparations and send out a warning shot before the opportunity to make history at April’s Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast?
Cookey, twice a Commonwealth bronze medallist, believes it is all about consistency for the Roses. “They need to be able to put out four quality quarters and perform for the whole game. At this level you can’t afford to have a bad quarter, or slip up at any time, or you will get punished. For England it’s about solidifying those combinations so people get comfortable playing with each other. The coaches have said they are using this series to finalise their Commonwealth Games squads, so the players are looking to secure their spots and prove themselves.”
England named a strong squad with Geva Mentor, Serena Guthrie and Ama Agbeze spearheading their challenge. They are, however, without talismanic goal shooter Jo Harten, who is side-lined with a knee injury. However, Cookey believes Harten’s absence will force other players to step up. “Jo is a massive lynchpin in the squad, so she will be missed, but it gives other players a chance. Players like Helen Housby and Kadeen Corbin have the opportunity to show what they can do in the shooting circle.
“Kadeen had an amazing first game against Malawi last year and she’ll be looking to replicate that across all the games this time. Helen’s no longer the ‘young one’ and the team will be looking to her to be the target in the shooting circle for them. The team has to work out how to play different combinations, particularly looking ahead to the Commonwealths as you need depth in your squad. You can’t play the same seven throughout that tournament, so other players need to come forward and step up.”
As for the opposition, Cookey believes there are some stand-out players for the other sides who could make the difference. “For Australia it’s about Caitlin Bassett in the shooting circle and how their mid-court players get her the ball. In defence Courtney Bruce had a storming quad series last year and has really stepped up since. They’ve been missing Sharni Layton in defence so I think she will be key.”
Before Saturday’s tight success, England enjoyed another famous victory over New Zealand in last autumn’s Taini Jamison Trophy, but ultimately lost the series 2-1. The Roses led in both matches before New Zealand showed their experience to fight back. As ever their goal attack Maria Folau (nee Tutaia) will play a key part, but Cookey is also excited about seeing some other combinations in the New Zealand attack. “It’s fantastic to see Grace Kara (nee Rasmussen) back in the squad and I’m looking forward to seeing what she can do with the wing attack bib. Then there is Bailey Mes, who is an incredible shooter, so it will be good to see that combination link up.”
In previous years South Africa would have been considered the series underdogs. However, they fought all the way in their opening game at the weekend, only going down 54-50 to Australia. They had an impressive 54-51 victory over England in August, and are beginning to show that they could be a force on the world stage. With more and more players coming to ply their trade in the Superleague, Cookey picks out two British-based players as ones to watch for South Africa. “Phumza Maweni will be hugely influential. She plays every quarter for South Africa and picks up so many turnovers that often keep them in the game. She and Bongwie Msomi, who plays for Wasps in this country, can be game-changers for them.”
With the world’s best players taking to the court, Cookey is hard pressed to pick a series winner. “It’s going to be incredibly close,” she says. “The last Quad Series, which took place down under, showed how close all the teams are. England had a brilliant win against New Zealand, and then came away disappointed after losing a game they should have won against South Africa, which would have given them the title. The level of netball is so high the title could go to any of the four teams – it really is that close to call.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Beth Shine studied a Masters in Sport Journalism at St. Mary’s University and now works as communications assistant for the Tennis Foundation. A freelance sports journalist, and keen netball player and fan, Beth follows most sports keenly with a particular interest in tennis, rugby and equestrianism. Beth’s latest articles.