After a historic first international test match between the Origin Australian Diamonds and the Uganda She Cranes ended in defeat for the Uganda She Cranes, 63-49, the Vitality Roses clinched a one-goal victory against the Silver Ferns in a tense and closely-fought match. Nat Metcalf was the Vitality Player of the Match, picking up 42 feeds and one gain during the match which also saw a combined 88% shooting accuracy from the Vitality Roses shooters.
The Vitality Roses came out strongly to start the game as Razia Quashie earnt an early turnover, getting her hands to the ball before New Zealand's Grace Nweke could. The New Zealand zone defence forced England to show great patience to take this turnover ball to goal, but they worked through this and scored, creating a 3-0 lead. A huge cheer from the Leeds crowd erupted as the Roses applied some great defensive pressure of their own to earn a held ball call, allowing them to extend their lead to 5-0. Nweke was then able to put the Silver Ferns on the scoreboard, before Eleanor Cardwell attempted a lay-up, but unfortunately the ball didn’t fall through the net, and New Zealand were able to begin to close the deficit through the hands of Georgia Heffernan. As the high-intensity play continued, a long-range shot from Helen Housby brought the scoreline to 8-5 in favour of the Vitality Roses. As the English defence doubled up on Nweke, twin sisters Kate and Georgia Heffernan played a quick one-two between them, allowing G Heffernan to score right under the post. After another long-range shot from Housby, G Heffernan stole possession of the ball on the transverse line, and the Silver Ferns scored the next two goals, levelling the score. In the final seconds of the quarter, the Silver Ferns launched the ball into Nweke, but it went over the back line, ending the quarter 15-14 to the Vitality Roses.
Silver Ferns Head Coach Dame Noeline Taurua didn’t make any changes heading into the second quarter, whilst Vitality Roses Head Coach Jess Thirlby chose to switch Imogen Allison and Amy Carter’s positions. The quarter started with an exciting goal-for-goal period with some beautiful feeds from Allison, now in the centre position, into Cardwell. Nat Metcalf skilfully faked the ball to draw the defenders out of the circle before sending a looping feed into Cardwell and on the next passage of play, the Vitality Roses placed immense defensive pressure on the Silver Ferns, slowing down their attacking play. A replayed ball call against the Silver Ferns gave possession of the ball to the Roses, and Housby scored from distance to bring the Roses three goals ahead at 24-21. Taurua then made another change, bringing Amorangi Malesala on at goal attack in place of G Heffernan. Jury gained possession for the Silver Ferns and Nweke converted, bringing the goal difference back to just one. Both coaches then opted for changes. For England, Ellie Rattu entered the game at wing defence, Carter moved to centre and Allison headed to the bench. And for New Zealand, Tayla Earle came on at centre in place of K Heffernan. With just 30 seconds to go until half time, the score was level at 30-30, but it was the Silver Ferns who ended the quarter with the psychological advantage of a one-goal lead, after an impressive long-range shot by debutant Malesala drew the quarter to a close at 30-31.
Neither coach made any changes heading into the third quarter and the match continued to be closely fought. Karin Burger came up with her first gain of the game on the circle edge and the Silver Ferns took a two-goal lead. Fast footwork to gain the front position and impressive elevation from Quashie earnt her an intercept as an almost-immediate response. Then Jess Thirlby chose to make a change, and Funmi Fadoju replaced Fran Williams at goal defence. A contact call against New Zealand allowed England to score twice in a row and take a narrow 35-34 lead. Fadoju interrupted the Silver Ferns’ play but it wasn’t enough to turn the ball over and the scoreline continued to range between and one and two goal lead for the Roses, until an offensive contact was called on the Roses’ centre pass. A quick shooter-to-shooter pass from Malesala to Nweke drew the score level once again. The Silver Ferns then sent the ball over the back line and Cardwell converted the turnover, bringing the advantage back to the Roses. England turned the ball over on New Zealand’s centre pass to open up a three-goal lead and, in response to this increasing scoreline, Mila Reuelu-Buchanan was brought onto the court in the wing attack position. England continued to apply scoreboard pressure, pushing the lead out to four goals and Cardwell attempted a long-range shot on the buzzer but it didn’t land, ending the quarter 46-43 to the Vitality Roses.
Allison re-entered the game in the centre position to begin the final quarter and Fadoju deflected the ball multiple times, disrupting the flow of the New Zealand attacking end, but the Silver Ferns were able to work through the pressure and score. With the scoreline sitting at 50-48 in favour of the Vitality Roses, the Silver Ferns continued to feed Nweke from distance, however, as Eleanor Cardwell slotted yet another goal, a huge cheer rose. Michaela Sokolich-Beatson was brought on to replace Karin Burger at wing defence just before Housby made a crucial interception, showing her skills on both attack and defence, and opening up a five-goal lead. More changes came from the Silver Ferns bench, with Karaka moving to goal keeper in place of Kelly Jury and Burger taking the wing defence bib. A huge cheer rose from the crowd as Allison intercepted the ball and sent it straight to Metcalf who delivered a fast feed into Cardwell. After scoring the next two goals the Vitality Roses had a 56-49 lead. Unfortunately, a missed shot from Housby followed, and Sokolich-Beatson took an intercept closing the gap to three. New Zealand took the next centre pass, closing the gap to two and the Vitality Roses had to hold their nerve to keep possession of the ball at this crucial moment. Another steal from Sokolich-Beatson followed and Nweke scored bringing the scoreline to 58-57, with New Zealand taking the next centre pass. With just 12 seconds left on the clock, Quashie and Fadoju combined to disrupt the Silver Ferns’ play. The crowd in the arena jumped to their feet and, with 12 seconds left to play, the Vitality Roses just had to hold onto possession of the ball to win. As the crowd counted down the final seconds, the Roses did just this, ending the game with a nail-biting one goal win, 58-57.
Vitality Roses Head Coach Jess Thirlby said: “We knew we were going to have to grind that out and turnover was going to be tough, but we got it at the right time today. They are all really enjoying trying to embrace the challenge. Not just wanting to be part of games, but actually wanting to compete and contest and get the outcome as well, and I think we are just seeing a bit of a shift on that which is healthy.”
Speaking of the crowd at the Leeds First Direct arena, Razia Quashie said: “The crowd was amazing… We want to lift and get back-to-back wins, so I’m excited to see what we can pull out of the bag tomorrow.”
The Vitality Roses will be back at the First Direct Arena in Leeds tomorrow, Sunday 28th January, to face the Origin Australian Diamonds in the Vitality Netball Nations Cup Final.
Limited tickets are still available for tomorrow's event and can be purchased via Leeds First Direct Arena website.
Vitality Roses starting seven: Razia Quashie (GK), Fran Williams (GD), Imogen Allison (WD), Amy Carter (C), Nat Metcalf (WA), Helen Housby (GA), Eleanor Cardwell (GS)
Substitutes: Halimat Adio, Funmi Fadoju, Sasha Glasgow, Hannah Joseph, Ellie Rattu
Silver Ferns starting seven: Kelly Jury (GK), Phoenix Karaka (GD), Karin Burger (WD), Kate Heffernan (C), Whitney Souness (WA), Georgia Heffernan (GA), Grace Nweke (GS)
Substitutes: Tayla Earle, Amorangi Malesala, Mila Reuelu-Buchanan, Michaela Sokolich-Beatson, Amelia Walmsley
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