‘It’s great they made the final, but they can’t beat Australia’ seemed to be the overwhelming sentiment among netball fans and pundits when Tracey Neville’s England booked a place in the 2018 Commonwealth Games final.
Just making it to the last day of competition on the Gold Coast was a watershed for the Roses; they had delivered England their first ever shot at gold in a major tournament. Since netball was added to the Games in 1998, the final had featured only two teams, Australia and New Zealand – much like the World Cup, where the two powerhouses have taken gold or silver in all but one.
But with a spine of experienced stars including Geva Mentor, Serena Guthrie and Jo Harten – all battle-hardened by years in elite trans-Tasman leagues – the perennial also-rans, who won bronze in 1998, 2006 and 2010, came from six goals down to win their semi-final against Jamaica and set up a finale with the then-reigning world and Commonwealth champions.
As demanded by an Australian public accustomed to netball success, Lisa Alexander’s side, led by captain Caitlin Bassett, had powered through the early rounds, obliterating teams by an average of 50 goals and often barely breaking a sweat.
Alexander, who pre-tournament warned Australia were super-charging England’s rise by allowing unlimited imports in the Super Netball league, used countless combinations throughout preliminary matches, seemingly determined not to have a predictable set seven.
On the same day the Roses shocked Jamaica – and themselves, some might say – with the miraculous come-from-behind win, the Diamonds humbled a New Zealand in freefall in the other semi, to the tune of 21 goals.
As historically significant as it was for England to make it there, the final was a fait accompli, a well-written script that just lacked actors. The world No 1 side, with a fine balance of experienced heads and emerging talent – and the best resourced program in the world – would prevail. Someone just forgot to tell England.
In a sport rich in remarkable finishes – like Australia’s 1999 World Cup win over New Zealand, when 22-year-old Sharelle McMahon shot the winning goal with less than a second left or the New Zealand’s victory in the epic 84-minute double extra-time final at the 2010 Games in Delhi – England’s truly last-gasp 52-51 win defied superlatives. And the result shook netball’s world order.
A team who had never before beaten Australia in a major tournament – who had scrapped through a semi-final, then trailed by two goals at the last break in the final and then four, the biggest margin of the match, within three minutes of the final quarter starting – won. By a goal. With zero seconds left on the clock.
Unlike in other sports, the umpire’s whistle officially ends a netball match. So while England shooter Helen Housby missed her last shot in regular time, an obstruction from Australian keeper Courtney Bruce – who replaced World Cup-winning captain Laura Geitz at half-time – meant Housby got another chance.
It was an opportunity to live out every netball girls’ fantasy – a shot after the end of regular time to win a gold medal. The girl from Cumbria didn’t make a mistake. England had done the impossible.
In that moment, it knocked the air out of every Australian player, coach, supporter and commentator. Even the kids who scurry onto the court to wipe up the sweat looked like they’d misunderstood something. Had Australia lost? Was that possible? Indeed, it was.
England made history as the first side other than Australia or New Zealand to claim the Commonwealth crown and the win took the sport to heights English netball administrators barely dared to dream of just years earlier.
For England and world netball, it was the day everything changed. For Australia, including fans such as this writer, the moment remains like a sparkling diamond ring from a broken engagement, tucked away in a drawer somewhere. Beautiful, but always heart-breaking.