Sport Netball ‘Underdog favourites’: How England’s rise is helping Australia at the Netball World Cup
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‘Underdog favourites’: How England’s rise is helping Australia at the Netball World Cup

Coach Lisa Alexander addresses the Diamonds at a match earlier this year. Photo: Getty
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The oxymoronic tag “underdog favourites” given to Netball World Cup hosts England is taking the heat off Australia, perennial winners of the event.

Diamonds coach Lisa Alexander says it’s definitely unfamiliar ground for her team as Australia seeks a fourth consecutive title.

“We’re completely underdogs,’’ said Alexander of the world No.1 and 11-time champions.

“But we’ve got a quiet sense of calm and confidence about what we’re doing, and we believe in our system and how we’re playing, so we’re quite happy to sit in the background and just strike when the moment’s right.’’

That time will likely not need to be in Friday’s opening match in Liverpool against unfancied Northern Ireland, coached by Australian Dan Ryan.

Nor is it likely in the subsequent Pool A matches against minnows Zimbabwe and Sri Lanka.

However, the shock one-goal loss to World No.2 England in the gold medal game at last year’s Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast has led to vastly-altered expectations – not least for the widely-feted hosts.

“The vibe is definitely around England, there’s no doubt about that,’’ Alexander told The New Daily before the Diamonds’ final training session in Liverpool on Thursday.

The session marked captain Caitlin Bassett’s resumption from a “mild” concussion suffered during matchplay last weekend, likely giving Alexander a full list to choose from.

Both ourselves and New Zealand, to a certain extent, are going under the radar a little bit, and we’re probably both quite happy about that.

“Obviously England are expected to win because they won the Comm Games gold medal and they’re on home soil.

“I think Eboni (Usoro-Brown, the Roses’ defender) said it best: They’re ‘underdog favourites’.’’

England and the Silver Ferns boast roughly twice as much experience as the Diamonds – who have just 338 collective caps, and whose only previous World Cup starters are Bassett, Caitlin Thwaites and recent recall Paige Hadley.

Much has been made of the leg up provided to rival nations by the unlimited import rule in Super Netball that has given international players unprecedented exposure to the highest level of weekly domestic competition.

It’s possible then that the domestic competition may cost Australia by fine-tuning some of the other nation’s up-and-coming players.

The big picture upside is that international netball no longer resembles trans-Tasman duopoly.

Upsets are more frequent, and the 2018 Commonwealth Games result has given new life to the World Cup, a quadrennial event that was in danger of becoming painfully predictable.

Indeed, the Diamonds have lost only three of the 14 world championships/cups played since the first, in 1963.

New Zealand owns three, while Trinidad and Tobago featured in a three-way tie in 1987, before finals were introduced.

So, with Australia’s incomparable record, can anything less than yet another gold medal be considered acceptable?

“Look, we can argue the semantics about that,’’ Alexander said.

“If we look at it logically, we can say ‘well, it’s the most competitive World Cup ever, so getting to a final is going to be a really great achievement in itself, for any team’.

“But we set ourselves a really high stretch target. We want a better-than-gold-medal performance, so we’re aiming higher.

“If we don’t get there, then we’ll deal with that when it comes. But at this stage all our thoughts are around making sure that we put together an exceptional performance.’’

Australia’s Caitlin Bassett in the Diamonds’ World Cup team uniform. Photo: Getty

Having hosted the last World Cup, and experienced all that goes with that, Alexander said that what England can expect “is like a wave over you, and it can be quite distracting”.

“Luckily for us we kept in our bubble and we had our strategies in place to counteract that, but it’s not easy … All I can say is good luck to England, (because) it’s a very pressure-filled situation.’’

Following what Alexander described as an “innocuous hit” during the final training camp in Manchester, spearhead Bassett has completed all the official concussion protocols.

And while her absence was far from ideal as connections are still being built in attack, more time could nevertheless be spent on the shooting combinations involving Thwaites, Gretel Tippett and Steph Wood.

Bassett also addressed the squad about how to handle the unusual situation of matches being played simultaneously on adjacent courts over the opening three days. It will be noisy, and different to the Super Netball norm.

Yet if something is to end up thwarting the Diamonds, Alexander is confident it will not be the weight of history, despite how strongly – from the fact every former player’s name appears on the current version of the gold dress, to the messages of support from past greats – such a grand culture continues to be incorporated into the present.

“We’ve talked about that a lot as a group: That it’s their script to write. It’s their history to make,’’ Alexander said.

“They embrace the excellence of the past. They know that it’s there and it strengthens them as a group, but they’ve got their opportunity to imprint their wonderful success on this stage.

“It’s about what they can do and show, so we’re very excited about this group being able to make this time their own.’’

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