Second-string England hold their own against world champions New Zealand inside packed out Claudelands Arena

Ben Bloom
·3-min read
Karin Burger of New Zealand (left) takes a pass under pressure from England's George Fisher (right) - GETTY IMAGES
Karin Burger of New Zealand (left) takes a pass under pressure from England's George Fisher (right) - GETTY IMAGES
  • New Zealand 58 England 45

Not a face mask in sight, thousands of spectators sat cheek by cheek and world champions New Zealand victorious - the return of international netball was like nothing untoward had ever happened.

England’s coaches had insisted this three-Test series in New Zealand was a careful balancing act of “performance and development” - an understandable brief given a gap of almost eight months since any England player last took part in a competitive match and the absence of England’s entire eight-strong Australia-based star names.

So while it was not quite cause for celebration that a rusty second-string consisting largely of inexperienced players lost only 58-45 to the world champions in the series opener on Wednesday, it will undoubtedly provide a sense of optimism and quiet contentment to the England camp. Above all else, they will just be happy to play netball again.

New Zealand’s largely successful efforts to defeat coronavirus means this series is being played against an almost strange backdrop of normality. The Silver Ferns players were able to take part in a full domestic season this summer, while the English contingent will never have gone so long without netball in their entire careers after the Superleague was abandoned in early March.

Defeat in this series is therefore almost expected, and the hosts were never in danger of losing their grip on the match from the moment they took the lead less than 30 seconds in. A five-goal advantage at the end of the first quarter steadily extended throughout: to eight at half-time, 11 at three-quarter time and 13 by the final buzzer.

But there are varying levels of defeat, and this was no disaster. Although chances were at a premium as England struggled to penetrate a resolute New Zealand defence and work space in the final third, all four Roses attackers impressed when rotated on and off the court. Their tally of eight missed shots was matched by their opposition, no mean feat given the lack of match practice.

At the other end, Fran Williams and Razia Quashie - the only two England players to spend the entire 60 minutes on court - proved themselves a natural fit in defence given rare chances to start at the highest level.

“I’m massively proud of them,” said assistant coach Kat Ratnapala, filling in for head coach Jess Thirlby, who is having to lead from home 11,000 miles away after failing a Covid-19 test just before the squad left England.

“It’s been a long time coming. We wanted to get players out there and get the nerves out of the way.

“Players haven’t played for a long time so we’re making sure we manage them suitably going onto the next Test.

“There was some naivety on court but we’ll learn from it and come back fighting. We’ve seen a few people step up tonight. This tour is about exposure. It’s about opportunity and exposing them where we can, but also looking at the scoreline.”

The two sides meet again in the second match on Friday.