England vanquished world champions New Zealand 54-44 to take a crucial step forward in the defence of their Commonwealth Games title on Thursday night.
In front of a raucous crowd the Roses survived a second-quarter scare to finish on top of their pool, undefeated heading into Saturday’s semi-finals.
With Jamaica producing a stunning upset over pre-tournament favourites Australia earlier in the day to advance as top seeds into the semis the question of whether England should throw the game to avoid a wounded Diamonds hung like a cloud over the game.
But from the first centre pass it was clear the Roses were out to win. Pressing the Ferns high and wide, England turned into scavengers hunting across looking to break the rhythm that typified the early stages.
The contest between England’s veteran goalkeeper Geva Mentor, in her sixth Games, and New Zealand’s burgeoning talent, 20-year-old Grace Nweke, proved the point of difference with the England star getting the better of the green Fern. Shooting at just 63 per cent, and picking up significant whistle, the Roses stormed ahead for New Zealand to take the first round: 8-15.
The second quarter will be one England will quickly forget. The injection of Te-Paea Selby-Rickit into attack proved to be a masterstroke by Silver Ferns’ head coach and renowned tactician Dame Noeline Taurua. With a new outlet in attack the Ferns came charging back, picking off predictable England play to eat into the deficit and leave things perfectly poised trailing 24-25 at the break.
For those looking for a sign the Roses have the mettle to defend their crown the second half showed exactly that. With Jo Harten, at the helm of goal shooter at the start of quarter three, England returned from the locker room inspired. Reclaiming the initiative, they reclaimed a five-goal cushion to stem the rising Silver Fern tide.
The final 15 minutes was a battle of wills. New Zealand made several changes, looking to change their course, but a resolute England held firm. A screaming intercept by 24-year-old Imogen Allison that saw her collapse out of court to keep the ball alive captured the Roses’ spirit as they twisted the knife into the world champions.
“We’ll take that,” the England head coach Jess Thirlby said. “At the end of the day it hasn’t changed our course of where we were headed. We’d already booked our place in the semi-final.
“We all know that task is a big one, but I think if you can arrive there feeling confident of taking the scalp of a team ranked above you in the world rankings then it’s a better place to be.”
On the Aussie Diamonds, who now await England in a semi-final that will determine who will go for gold, Thirlby said: “I think Australia will do their homework. They’ll come back out and they’ve got some real weapons in there. We’ve got a big task on our hands.”