This was a game of two halves: the half where South Africa played a careful, thoughtful game, capitalising on England’s wayward passing to bring the ball systematically to its spearhead shooter Lenize Potgieter, crafting a dominant lead against the Commonwealth Games gold medallists.
And then there was the second half, where England’s Geva Mentor demonstrated why she is such a fearsome opponent in GK, blanketing the South African goal circle to bring her team back into the lead. In the end, there were only three goals differentiating the teams a defence-heavy game, and South Africa was once again left to reflect how close it comes to matching the top international teams, and how hard it is yet to score a win.
Although England applied plenty of pressure to slow access to South Africa’s shooters, they withstood the pressure well. Maryka Holtzhausen scored the first goal of the game with an impressive mid-rang shot over Layla Guscoth’s defence, and Potgieter worked tirelessly to hold and re-offer to her feeders.
Rome Dreyer had an impressive start at Centre against Serena Guthrie, with seven goal assists from 12 feeds for the quarter, and Bongi Msomi was providing some well-timed leads to link play through the midcourt. South Africa won six defensive gains for the quarter and was able to score from three of them, taking a two goal lead to quarter time at 13-11.
Shadine Van der Merwe at WD was clearly enjoying the international stage against Chelsea Pitman, restricting her to three goal assists and picking up two intercepts and two defensive gains. She combined nicely with Karla Pretorius to shut down England’s attack, causing incidental England turnovers via a held ball and bad passes.
England made immediate substitutions for the second quarter, bringing Ellie Cardwell to GS, and Jade Clarke to C, sending Helen Housby to GA and Guthrie to WD, and then after four minutes, Natalie Haythornthwaite to WA and Pitman to the bench. The wholesale changes to the attack end presaged England’s worst quarter for the game: they scored only nine goals, with Pretorius relishing her new matchup to confuse space in the goal circle. South Africa significantly converted six of their eight defensive gains for the quarter, and were looking quietly confident with a seven goal lead at half time.
England set about dismantling South Africa’s lead in the third quarter, bringing the margin back to one goal by the end of the 15 minutes. England’s third centre pass was a battle of the wills between the two teams, with nine exchanges of possession and two missed shots by each team before Housby finally scored.
Mentor was instrumental in winning back possession four times in this passage of play, with two deflections and strong defensive pressure causing Holtzhausen to miss both her shots. Mentor finished the quarter with six defensive gains, well supported by Ama Agbeze who was brought into the game with a heavily strapped knee.
South Africa brought on Danelle Lochner to relieve the fading Holtzhausen, but she was able to find no more easy space in the goal circle than her teammates. England doubled South Africa’s score 12-6 in the third quarter, and were trailing by only one goal at the final break.
While there was an air of inevitability when England finally assumed the lead, it was not until the final five minutes of the game that they were able to achieve it. The substitution of Ine-Mari Venter at GA was providing some essential stability for the Proteas, and she quickly scored seven from ten shots while Potgieter was restricted to two goals for the quarter.
On England’s fourth and sixth centre passes, Pretorius forced two errors in the shooting circle which South Africa quickly converted to lead 40 – 37. It is the sign of a champion team that on the following South Africa centre pass, Guthrie took an intercept from which Haythornthwaite scored in transition, and from that point South Africa failed to score again until the game was all over.
While South Africa had carefully converted its first six centre passes, it gave up three intercepted passes and one offensive contact on its next four centre passes, handing victory to an England team that does not doubt its ability to win in difficult situations. The final scoreline of 45-42 flattered the defenders for both teams, but indicates some obvious weaknesses in shooting depth.
Norma Plummer was pleased by her team’s performance in their third match after having spent more time together, particularly with three new players and two with limited experience to integrate into the team. “We still need to be able to play the intensity for the full game,” she observed. “If we were playing in Suncorp (Super Netball), we would have won that.”
“I was absolutely rapt in our defence end. They were absolutely outstanding. The work ethic was just sensational. Our shooters did alright. They talked themselves out of it in the second quarter.”
Explaining her third quarter attack substitutions, Plummer said, “Rome Dreyer in the centre did a great job, but she was really starting to labour, so I just changed that up to give her a break. Also with the GA position we needed to work that out, but I just would have preferred to see them go to the post a lot better than wanting to dish off all the time. Again, that’s a learning factor and we’ve got to keep working on those things.”
Shadine Van der Merwe had a full game at WD against a rotation of England’s finest, and Plummer was full of praise for her “outstanding game. It’s just a matter of making them understand that at this level you don’t give the five yards and think that you’re going to pick up the speccy. They can do that in their Brutal Fruit, but you can’t do that in this level. She’s learnt now to start to sit on the player, and it was an outstanding game by her today.”
Reflecting on her performance at WA, Bongi Msomi said, “I think every game for every player is a learning curve. I felt really great on court. There were a few times when I thought maybe this was too early, but it was good to see and understand that I should have waited a little bit longer.
“We just lost the game ourselves compared with losing it to them, and that’s a disappointment at this stage. I think we have come a long way with the new players stepping in. Today they really showed guts and I think it is just great for netball in South Africa, because going back we’ve got depth, and hard luck to Norma because now she has to pick the team after this. I think the girls did well; we just have to finish off, and we can’t keep missing these opportunities because they don’t come every time.”
Plummer was already thinking ahead about managing a playing group who has come close to beating the top teams several times now. “We’ve had that opportunity even in January where we had Australia going, and we only lost be four to England and five to New Zealand. We just go a bit tentative instead of being able to challenge ourselves right through. We got close in January after having three years of stability in the same team. We came on this trip and it was nearly back to square one in a lot of ways. The thing I said to some of the senior players though, is that the tough love’s coming in now. Because seriously, I’ve played it along, and now it’s about starting to stand up. they have to learn that it is unforgiving in this competition, and they don’t get a second chance all the time. We actually had that game. We made England absolutely have to change everything to get across the line.”
England captain Ama Agbeze had a realistic view of her team’s performance. “That kind of game is very stressful from the bench! We didn’t ever get any flow, we were hesitant, so then when people let the ball go, because people were dithering, they weren’t available, or the ball would go that way and everyone would go this way. South Africa is a team that we know can really get us into those situations. It is really hard to get the ball off them, so they get on top of you because when they win possession they are patient and they take it down and they score. We knew that coming into the game, but our hesitation and poor timing got us into a mess.”
“We threw away ball, or passed across court which they can come out and get, and that plays into the goal keeper’s hands. We knew that going into the game, and it is frustrating that we made it a defensive game and let that happen.”
Tracey Neville was definitive that her team had not lived up to its intentions. “We didn’t really stick to game plan, which was a bit disappointing in that first half. We were wasteful with ball, we were choosing the first option, whereas we wanted to change our timing today. We wanted to shorten up our leads. Obviously we wanted to calm Karla Pretorius down, but we constantly kept playing to her strengths, and that is something that we need to seriously look about the role of the GA in being able to do that.
“However I do think from a coaching perspective we got to look at a few more players out there and what they can offer. Comm Games was essential for that about how we utilised our players through that series. Quad 1 is always about trying and testing and seeing what players can come on at different stages of the game, and the changes that we made a half time, the players that come they brought us back into that game to be able to win it.
“At the end of the day we need to take games on. There was an opportunity in that first quarter we should have just taken that game and blew that game out. Against Australia as well we should have carried that game on. We’re just not game smart enough at the moment or experienced enough to be able to do that. But we’re at the early stages of our world cup campaign so we’re in a positive element and we come back with the win and I’m proud of my team for doing that.”
On the absence of the injured Jo Harten from England’s attack end, Agbeze offered this analysis. “Any one of our attack end has the skill and the mindset to play a positive game. They’ve struggled a little bit with the timing and working together, so it’s probably more developing combinations and giving them more of the motivation and knowing they have the capacity to go out there on any position and step up and play the game. What Jo brings is not just about her actual game play, it’s the smarts about when to do what and how to change the game up, so she probably influences other players around her as well as leading herself by example. We now need those other girls to know when to play smart, when to slow the game down, and when the WA needs to take a dominant role for the GA to just keep her GD busy. It’s more game smarts that those other girls need to develop.”
England 45 def South Africa 42
(11-13, 20-27, 32-33, 45-42)
Player of the Match: Helen Housby (England)
GS Helen Housby
GA Natalie Haythornthwaite
WA Chelsea Pitman
C Serena Guthrie
WD Jodie Gibson
GD Layla Guscoth
GK Geva Mentor
GS Lenize Potgieter
GA Maryka Holtzhausen
WA Bongi Msomi
C Rome Dreyer
WD Shadine Van der Merwe
GD Karla Pretorius
GK Phumza Maweni
South Africa 33
South Africa 16
South Africa 79%
Report: Jane Edwards
Photos: Kirsten Daley