The Vitality Roses squad, welcoming back experienced players from the 2023 silver medal-winning World Cup team, made a winning start to their Vitality Netball Nations Cup campaign with an emphatic 62-56 victory over the Uganda She Cranes.
After witnessing an impressive 63-50 Australian victory over the Silver Ferns, which saw the Diamonds’ captain Liz Watson pick up the Vitality Player of the Match award, the Wembley crowd was treated to a tense and highly competitive match between the Vitality Roses and the Uganda She Cranes.
In a match that saw all 12 Vitality Roses squad members take to court, Helen Housby shot at 83% and was awarded Vitality Player of the Match.
The starting line-up for the Vitality Roses saw Housby and Nat Metcalf return to the side after their historic World Cup campaign last summer. They combined seamlessly in attack with Eleanor Cardwell, with Housby slotting the first goal. An early turnover for the Vitality Roses saw them go 3-0 up in the first 90 seconds of the game. Uganda’s captain Irene Eyaru got the She Cranes on the scoreboard before the Roses responded with a quick passage of attacking play and a fantastic turnover from Amy Carter resulting in two more goals. Uganda showed great patience to carry the ball through the court to Mary Cholhok who delighted the Wembley crowd with her trademark lay-up. After a missed shot and a crucial offensive rebound, Cholhok closed the gap between the two teams, levelling the score at 9-9. Fran Williams responded with an impressive intercept in the mid-court, seamlessly delivering the ball to Cardwell under the post. A miss from Housby provided another opportunity for Uganda and a bullet pass to Eyaru under the post levelled the score once again with four minutes remaining in the quarter. The Vitality Roses skilfully swung the ball across the circle to provide Housby with another shooting opportunity, as the two teams continued to remain neck-and-neck until a show-stopping intercept from Imogen Allison at centre gave the Vitality Roses a narrow lead. A long-distance shot from Cardwell raised a huge cheer from the crowd, before the quarter ended 18-15 in favour of the Vitality Roses.
Vitality Roses Head Coach Jess Thirlby opted to switch Allison and Amy Carter’s positions at the start of the second quarter, with Allison taking the wing defence bib, and Carter moving into centre. Clever defensive work between Razia Quashie and Williams confused the space in the Ugandan shooting circle, allowing Vitality Roses captain Williams to intercept the ball. Cardwell, who was sitting at 100% shooting accuracy at the end of the first quarter, reliably converted the goal for her team. The Vitality Roses applied tight defensive pressure to the Ugandan attack, forcing them to make multiple passes before finding a shooting opportunity and the familiar combination of Housby and Cardwell, continued to reap rewards. An offside call on the Ugandan wing attack allowed England another opportunity to attack, opening the goal margin out to seven. The She Cranes made a change in the goal keeper position, with Haniisha Muhammed exiting the court for Falidah Kadoni. A valiant effort from Nat to keep a ball in play saw her go tumbling over the LED board at the edge of the court, but unfortunately it wasn’t enough to keep the ball in English hands and Uganda went on to score two in a row, closing the goal margin to five. Kadoni got involved quickly with a tip on the ball, but it wasn’t enough to prevent Housby from scoring her ninth goal of the game. Sarah Nakiyunga entered the game at wing attack for Uganda and more impressive defence was on show from the Vitality Roses, with Quashie rolling round the back of Cholhok to tip the ball out of court. With four minutes left in the first half of the game, Ellie Rattu was brought on at wing defence and Funmi Fadoju at goal defence. Cardwell took a significant hit against the post and Christine Nakitto at goal defence for the She Cranes received a suspension from the umpire. She was sent off court for two minutes, leaving Uganda down to six players. Despite this, the She Cranes managed to stay in touch with the Vitality Roses and once all seven players were back on court (with Sandra Nambirige replacing Nakitto at goal defence), the She Cranes took an intercept from Eleanor Cardwell, reducing the gap to four goals – 34-30 – at the half time break.
Whilst Uganda decided not to make any changes heading into the second half, the Vitality Roses made three, with Berri Neil coming on at goal attack, Carter at centre and Jayda Pechova at goal keeper. Housby, Allison and Quashie all headed to the bench. Dynamic defence from the She Cranes earnt them a turnover early in the quarter and Sarah Nakiyunga skilfully kept the ball in court, delivering it to Cholhok who continued her high scoring rate. A short pass call in the English attacking end gave the She Cranes the opportunity to close the gap to just one goal, but Pechova turned it straight back and Neil scored for the Vitality Roses. Cardwell combined well with her second shooting partner of the game as the Vitality Roses attack worked patiently around the tight Ugandan defence. Hannah Joseph replaced Metcalf at wing attack for the Vitality Roses as the goal difference sat at two goals. An athletic intercept under the post from Ugandan goal keeper Kadondi, followed by two quick Ugandan goals made it 41-41 with five minutes left to go in the quarter. A missed shot from Neil put the ball back into Ugandan possession. Two tenacious tips followed from Cardwell and Rattu, but it was Fadoju who eventually turned possession back into the hands of the Vitality Roses. A goal-for-goal period of the game followed, keeping the crowd on the edge of their seats. In the Vitality Roses’ defence end, Pechova and Rattu combined to intercept the ball in the dying seconds of the quarter, denying Uganda the chance to equalise, and leaving the score 46-45 to the Vitality Roses.
Vitality Roses Head Coach Thirlby turned to her experienced bench to start the final quarter, with Housby replacing Cardwell at goal shooter, Allison replacing Carter at centre and captain Williams back on court in place of Fadoju at goal defence. England started the quarter off with a quick goal, then a footwork call from Uganda gave England an opportunity to stretch the gap back out to three and Neil delivered with a beautiful mid-range shot. Pechova used her quick footwork to challenge Cholhok in the air and won the ball at a crucial time for the Vitality Roses, opening up the scoreline to 53-47. There was a rare miss from Housby, but she fought to win the rebound and converted on her second attempt. Rattu left the court and Fadoju re-entered at wing defence. Former Loughborough Lightning teammates Cholhok and Williams tussled for the ball in the Ugandan shooting circle before Nambirige stole the ball from English possession and Cholhok converted the intercept to another goal for the She Cranes. A crucial intercept from Pechova in the final minute of the game extended the scoreline further in the Vitality Roses’ advantage and Housby nailed a final goal on the buzzer, seeing England take a 62-56 win over Uganda.
Vitality Roses Head Coach Thirlby commented after the game: “I love how flamboyant Uganda are, I love the problems that they create for us, and I think it was just the test that we needed. There were some good reminders, we didn’t stay in the contest for long enough, I think we were a bit short on some of our running lines. So we just need to tidy up on that and we were lacking a bit of connection at the start defensively. But in terms of our possession game, that’s really pleasing. I know we’re a team that need to tidy up on how much ball we give away, and I thought we were much better tonight overall across the game. I’m pretty pleased and it gave us lots of information ahead of the next few matches.”
On the new combinations that took to the court, she said: “There were some exciting combinations going out there. It was lovely to see Helen and Berri get a bit playful, and they’ve barely played together, so I think we have to rip the sticky plaster off sometimes and just trust them.”
Quashie, who returned to the side for her first cap since 2020, said: “We always had belief that we would come out with a win. We pushed on at the end and I’m proud of the girls who finished the game strong. It’s just amazing to be alongside Fran and the rest of the girls and come out and put on a performance that we should be proud of.”
The team’s focus now turns to their game against world number one Australia, with Quashie commenting: “We need to start strong and hard and keep that up throughout. Our work rate needs to be a lot higher and we’re just going to stay strong from the start to the end of the game.”
Watch day two of the Vitality Netball Nations Cup live on Sky Sports Arena and YouTube (UK) or NetballPass (worldwide) from 13:30, or listen live to the England game on BBC Radio 5Live Sport Extra from 16:15.