The England Roses conquered the Malawi Queens 62-60 to complete a clean sweep of victories at the Vitality Netball International Series in Birmingham on Wednesday evening.
A raucous crowd were treated to a tremendous encounter which swayed between both sides and engrossed all of those at the Genting Arena.
For the first time in the three-match Series, the Queens started strongly and threatened a first win over their illustrious hosts but the Roses retained their composure to win a match which, at one stage, had seen them fall nine goals behind.
Having started on the back foot in the previous two games, the Queens came flying out of the blocks and caught England cold.
Led by an inspired Joanna Kachilika, they defended with remarkable discipline and intensity to make it tough for the Roses mid-court to feed the attack.
Instead, turnovers were created and converted as a big lead was quickly built. A tactical change saw Kadeen Corbin replaced by her sister Sasha, with Natalie Haythornthwaite moving to GA.
Not only was the momentum with the visitors, but so was the luck. A slip from Haythornthwaite allowed the Malawi defence to regain the ball in a passage of play which summed up England’s fortunes.
At the end of the opening fifteen minutes, the Queens were 18-10 ahead.
A switch was made for the second quarter as Ama Agbeze and Jodie Gibson switched positions with England looking to get a foothold back into the game.
An early change was forced upon the Queens as Takondwa Lwazi hobbled off and was replaced by Rose Mkanda.
This stop in play allowed the Roses to regroup and force Malawi back with some quick possession play from centre-pass. A stolen ball from Agbeze saw England convert an important turnover.
Injury struck again for the away side as Mkanda was forced from the court with a similar knock to the one which befell Lwazi earlier in the quarter, but the latter was now fit enough to return to the action.
A spree of turnovers eventually saw Haythornthwaite score from range and that sparked England into life. With the gap at five, a fantastic spell saw Cardwell keep her nerve to put the Roses within touching distance, trailing 30-31 at the half-time interval.
An early Malawi turnover in the third quarter was countered when Agbeze ghosted in for a steal, allowing Cardwell to net. This was followed by a breaking call on the visitors from centre-pass as the Roses converted to level the score at 37-37.
Loose hands in the shooting circle from the very next play had England back where they started as Malawi retook the lead.
With time running down on Q3, Rachel Dunn was introduced at GS and Malawi responded by switching Kachilika into GK.
A composed double finish from player of the match Haythornthwaite finally saw the Roses take a lead but lost possession in the mid-court saw the momentum swing one final time in the quarter as the Queens netted twice to take a 46-45 lead.
The final quarter was a tense goal for goal affair in the early exchanges until fantastic defensive pressure forced a turnover with Dunn levelling.
Again ill-discipline cost Malawi from their centre-pass as the Roses snuck ahead once more. A three goal lead with five minutes remaining saw the home side under immense pressure with the Queens coolly taking the ball to goal and defending with renewed ferocity.
The pressure eventually told and the teams were once more tied at 59-59 with just two minutes left on the clock.
Composure was required and with Malawi sensing a first ever victory over their hosts, they went in search of a killer goal.
A fired feed into the waiting Kumwenda was placed two inches too high and drifted long, advantage England.
The experience of Jade Clarke in the mid-court took over and patient movement through the court set-up Dunn to score and finally seal a dramatic victory.
England captain Ama Agbeze collected another Player of the Series award as her excellent form continued.
The Queens will return to Africa with their heads held high as they showed they can certainly mix it with the top nations.
An alternative dilemma now faces Tracey Neville and her coaching team. As the Commonwealth Games creep ever closer on the horizon, a squad with enormous strength in depth will eventually need to be whittled down.
For now the Roses can celebrate a year filled with fantastic performances and promising displays. The task now is to keep this momentum and peak at the right time in the Gold Coast.
Roses starting 7: GS – Cardwell, GA – Corbin, WA – Haythornthwaite, C – Clarke, WD – Cobden, GD – Gibson, GK – Agbeze
Queens starting 7: GS – Kumwenda, GA – Chimaliro, WA – Galleta, C – Lwazi, WD – Sambo, GD – Kachilika, GK – Ngwira
Umpires: Dave Brown and Marielouw van der Merwe with Alison Davies as reserve
The Roses are next in action at the Netball Quad Series, as part of the Vitality Netball International Series, in January 2018. Tickets for England v New Zealand are now SOLD OUT but limited tickets remain for England v Australia on Monday 22nd January, get your tickets here!