England set up clash with wounded Australia at Commonwealth Games

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England's Helen Housby helped England into the semi-finals of the Commonwealth Games with a win over world champions New Zealand
England's Helen Housby helped England into the semi-finals of the Commonwealth Games with a win over world champions New Zealand

By James Toney in Birmingham

Pressure makes diamonds is a favourite athlete cliche at the Commonwealth Games but in the case of Australia it can break them too.

Australia's netball team certainly didn't sparkle like their nickname as they were polished off by Jamaica's Sunshine Girls in arguably the shock of the Games.

Australia are the world's number one side and have never not reached the Commonwealth final, winning four of the seven golds contested.

However, the pandemic has severely restricted their international programme and perhaps that showed.

Jamaica had never beaten them in a major tournament, their captain Jhaniele Fowler scoring 47 of their goals in 57-55 group victory that included overturning a six-point deficit late in the match.

"It's surreal, we've not beaten Australia at a Commonwealth Games and to come here and do it with an incredible team … and prove everyone wrong was really good," she said.

"Most definitely it does mean more [to beat Australia].

"We want to go home with either a gold or a silver medal, but we're going for the gold. That's always been our focus."

Defending champions England's concluding group game with world champions New Zealand had been billed as a tussle to avoid the Australians in the semi-finals.

However, hosts 54-44 win means they'll now be a rematch of that famous gold medal game from four years ago - won by Helen Housby's last-gasp shot - in Saturday's last four.

Before their win on the Gold Coast, England's Roses and Jamaica had traditionally slugged it out for the bronze medal at these Games but perhaps there is a new netball world order to disrupt that Anzac spirit.

England took the lead early in the match and never let it go. They were just one point ahead at half-time but boosted that to a six-point advantage heading into the final quarter.

Eleanor Cardwell and Housby's goals will get the headlines, but this was a special night for the evergreen Geva Mentor, a 37-year-old who made her first Commonwealth Games appearance two decades ago. She went toe-to-toe with the Silver Ferns star goal shooter Grace Nweke, 17 years her junior, and put her in her pocket.

Jess Thirlby had a tough job succeeding the popular Tracey Neville as the Roses coach and has taken her time to mould that team in her image.

This was arguably the best performance of her tenure, though expect no complacency, England lost their last game against Australia in the Quad Series earlier this year by 58-46.

And Australia have made no secret they are out to avenge losing so dramatically at their Games in 2018.

"We're arriving at the semi-final having taken the scalp of a team above us in the world rankings and that's got to be good for confidence," said Thirlby.

"It's a better place to be than picking ourselves up from a loss. This group like making history and we've got a big task against a wounded team. They will be very rational about their performance against Jamaica, and they've still got the same route as us to the final.

"I've been in this job three years and gone on a big journey with these players. This is still a group game, but the group will take a lot of energy from that performance."

They take their netball seriously in New Zealand and their failure to win a medal four years ago was dubbed a national sporting scandal. A hostile media accused players of 'disrespecting the dress' and coach walked before she was axed. In a remarkable turnaround, just over a year later they were crowned world champions in Liverpool.

No team has ever lost a match at the Commonwealth Games and won the gold - New Zealand and Australia will need to buck that trend to deliver on their pre-Games favouritism.

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