England 52 – 58 Australia
England fell to a narrow 52-58 defeat to the Australian Diamonds in the opening match of the Vitality Netball International Series in an electric Echo Arena, Liverpool this evening.
Both sides were much changed from last year’s World Cup campaign and a crowd of over 5,000 which packed into the venue that will host the 2019 edition were able to witness new combinations blossom on court.
The contest was fast paced, thrilling and passionate. The Roses were behind after the opening quarter but came back to take the lead midway through the second.
The Diamonds responded and at half-time they had established a four goal lead. England continued to take the fight to their illustrious opponents and despite showing incredible determination throughout the second half, they were unable to claw back the deficit.
A strong starting seven was named by Tracey Neville as England went in search of a fourth successive victory on home soil against the Diamonds. Five of the side were present for the Roses at the World Cup last year.
It was one of the more experienced faces who started the scoring as Rachel Dunn finished a flowing move. The mid-court was a battleground for possession in early in proceedings with Australia grabbing a 9-7 advantage midway through the quarter.
The England attack were moving well and passing the ball at speed which allowed sharp shooting Helen Housby to keep the away side in touching distance. At the first interval, England trailed 15-17.
A defensive combination of Ama Agbeze and Eboni Beckford-Chambers were providing the thrills for the excitable crowd as they pulled off an array of gasp-inducing tips and intercepts.
In the blink of an eye the Roses had wrestled their way into a 23-22 lead. The World Champions refused to roll over and applied some exceptional defensive pressure to turnover possession.
As the half drew to a close, the momentum was with the girls in gold. Loose England passing opened the door and a clinical shooting combination of Caitlin Thwaites and Gretel Tippett punished the hosts to put Australia 30-26 ahead at half-time.
A high intensity first half saw Lucy Alexander ring the changes at the interval while Neville kept the faith with her original starting line-up.
It was an even start to the third quarter as the sides cancelled each other out in the early action. A breaking call and a missed effort on goal from England allowed the Diamonds to stretch the lead to seven.
This time it was the Roses who roared back and Housby continued her fine display of shooting with a wonderful finish from range to convert a home turnover.
Sara Bayman then led by example as the England captain produced a pin-point feed into Dunn to get the crowd on their feet once again. A short pass call on the edge of the attacking circle quelled the comeback and the Diamonds retained a seven goal gap, 38-45 at the end of the third quarter.
Despite the exhausting pace that the match was being played at, the starting seven were to complete the full quota of quarters with no England changes for the final fifteen minutes.
Agbeze responded to a cacophony of north-west with another sensational tip to delight the home fans. The deficit was reduced to five with another smooth finish from the hotshot Housby.
Another intercept and turnover put England four behind. Suddenly a sea of red raced forward and Dunn was able to retrieve a ball from flying off court at full pace with an incredible feed into Housby, the gap was now three.
The crowd who had been behind the Roses started to believe a miraculous comeback was on the cards.
With time running down England were keen to move the ball at pace as an intense match continued at a phenomenal tempo. The rush to goal was to backfire. A loose ball forward allowed the World Champions to capitalise and gain some breathing space.
It was down to player of the match Sharni Layton to seal the victory for Australia as an exceptional read allowed her to ghost in for a steal and push the Diamonds forward once again.
The fight was not to leave the Roses though and Bayman put her body on the line to take a contact call and give England the chance to end the match on a high.
A Housby goal allowed the crowd one final chance to scream their delight and they did so with as much gusto as they had for the opener sixty minutes previously.
The second fixture takes place at a sold-out Copper Box Arena in London on Friday and if the two teams produce a clash as ferocious as tonight’s, the capital will be rocking.
Roses starting 7: GS – Dunn, GA – Housby, WA – Corbin, C – Bayman, WD – Clarke, GD – Beckford-Chambers, GK - Agbeze
Diamonds starting 7: GS – Thwaites, GA – Tippett, WA – Medhurst, C – Brazill, WD – Simpson, GD – McMeniman, GK – Layton
Umpires: Jonathan Bredin and Sylvester Chris Campbell with Liz Boon as reserve
photos Janos Schmidt