The Vitality Roses secured a 58-63 victory against the South Africa SPAR Proteas in Cape Town after displaying real tenacity and togetherness in a dramatic extra-time encounter.
It was the first time the two sides had gone head-to-head since the Vitality Netball World Cup earlier this year in which England beat the SPAR Proteas to take the bronze medal.
Fresh off the back of being crowned Africa Netball Cup champions, South Africa came out with purpose determined to make their mark in front of their home crowd but it was Jess Thirlby’s team who took the series opener in a very memorable first game in charge for the new Vitality Roses Head Coach.
Jade Clarke, England’s most capped player, took the first centre pass of the game and a smooth transition to the shooting circle saw Eleanor Cardwell net the first goal of the series. Lenize Potgieter followed suit by making it 1-1 in the first minute of the game.
The SPAR Proteas continued to apply strong defensive pressure but Cardwell and Kadeen Corbin kept their cool and managed to take advantage of some strong feeds from captain Natalie Haythornthwaite and Clarke.
A roaring crowd at the Bellville Velodrome in Cape Town saw both sides go almost goal for goal for the majority of the first quarter, but when the first whistle blew it was England ahead with the finest of margins at just 12-15.
The tempo remained high throughout the second quarter, with Cardwell on hand to increase England’s lead within the first five minutes by another three goals.
However, the SPAR Proteas stayed hot on England’s heels and despite some smooth intercepts from Fran Williams and Stacey Francis, South Africa’s Potgieter and Renske Stoltz forced the gap to close.
Even though it looked like South Africa would regain the lead on a number of occasions, England fearlessly fought for control and secured a 23-28 lead at half time.
Thirlby decided to mix things up at the start of the second half with Laura Malcolm coming on as WA and Haythornthwaite moving to GA in place of Corbin.
South Africa, who came back out on court without their captain Bongi Msomi, appeared energised, turning over a number of balls at the start of the quarter.
After just five minutes of the second half South Africa came back level with the Roses, much to the delight of a sold-out crowd over in Cape Town, but England remained patient and ensured Cardwell had ample opportunity to stay toe to toe with them.
It was another nail-biting quarter and it went right down to the wire but South Africa managed to nudge ahead, with the score set at 40-39 to the SPAR Proteas at the end of the third quarter.
There was just one change for the Vitality Roses when they stepped back out on court, with Clarke and Natalie Panagarry exchanging bibs.
England showed their ability to remain consistent and to perform under pressure by adding a few more all-important goals to their tally in quick succession, often thanks to some strong feeds from Malcolm.
It was hard to call the outcome of the game with both sides taking the lead numerous times, which soon saw the final whistle blew at 51-51 meaning the first test went to extra time (two seven-minute halves).
The Roses took an early advantage in the first half of extra time, leading 56-57.
South Africa then brought Msomi back into the mix in an attempt to reclaim control in the last seven minutes of on-court action, but Cardwell remained on point and helped England produce their first win of the series. The score at the final whistle was 58-63 to the Vitality Roses.
After a tightly contested affair, the Vitality Roses will get another chance to face South Africa on Saturday 30th November at 1pm for the second round of the three-match test series.
When the tense three-match series comes to an end, South Africa and the Vitality Roses will face each other once again at the Vitality Netball Nations Cup in January. Tickets can be purchased for the series on home soil here.
Vitality Roses starting seven: (GS) Eleanor Cardwell, (GA) Kadeen Corbin, (WA) Natalie Haythornthwaite, (C) Jade Clarke, (WD) Natalie Panagarry, (GD) Fran Williams, (GK) Stacey Francis.
SPAR Proteas starting seven: (GS) Lenize Potgieter, (GA), Renske Stoltz, (WA) Bongi Msomi, (C) Rome Dreyer, (WD) Monique Reyneke, (GD) Shadine Van Der Merwe, (GK) Phumza Maweni.