Voting is now open for the SJA2018 British Sports Awards sponsored by The National Lottery. As far as SARAH JUGGINS is concerned, there is only one contender for sports team and that’s England netball.
Sometimes in sport you experience a moment that delights, surprises and enthrals. And so it was when a squad of largely unknown sportswomen, playing a sport that many still categorise as a ‘sport for schoolgirls’, took to the court against the world number one team and, against the odds, brought home a Commonwealth gold medal.
On 14 April 2018, while most of the UK were sleeping, on the other side of the world, the least well-known of the Neville siblings was masterminding the England netball team’s greatest ever victory.
England’s netballers had already produced a dramatic comeback to overcome Jamaica in the semi-finals and now they were facing the mother of all challenges – a final against the overwhelming favourites, Commonwealth Games champions and home side, Australia. In addition, the last time England had beaten Australia was in 2013, and they had never beaten them at a major tournament.
In taking their place in the final, England had already made history: this was the first time since netball was introduced in 1998 that the final did not feature Australia and New Zealand.
Tracey Neville [sister to Gary and Phil Neville], took over as head coach to the Roses in 2014. Her first major challenge with the team was the 2015 world cup in Australia. She was instantly thrown a curve ball when her father, who was travelling to support his daughter, died on route. Neville continued to coach the team and they took bronze.
Since then, Neville has moulded the team into an athletic, determined and, importantly, confident group of players. She encouraged her squad to travel to Australia and New Zealand to play professional netball – eight of the gold medal-winning team had taken that advice, and the result was a tougher, more professional group of players than England had fielded before.
The depth of England’s resolve and resilience was seen in the final quarter of the thrilling Commonwealth Games final. The two teams were neck and neck throughout the game and, at half-time, the scores were 25-25.
At the end of the third quarter, England had dropped to four behind and the home crowd were noisily cheering as they sensed an Australian onslaught. What happened instead was a complete surprise to everyone in the arena.
England’s passes were perfect, their movement was light and incisive and the shooting was impeccable. Defensively, Australia could find no way through. The Roses pulled the scores back to 51-51 and then, with just three seconds left on the clock, Helen Housby received the ball in the Australia defensive circle. She steadied herself and launched the shot that put England netball on the map.
With the Netball World Cup in Liverpool in 2019, Housby and her teammates could not have chosen a better moment to re-write the record books.