Australia will face a tough challenge in England.
Australia will face a tough challenge in England.

Are we seeing a netball power shift

IF England are the World Cup's "underdog favourites" - a tag some Diamonds backroom staff aptly invented this week - what does that make Australia?

The favourite underdogs?

Seems borderline blasphemous to say such a thing about the reigning champions and 11-time winners from the previous 14 editions.

SEE BELOW FOR AUSTRALIA'S OPPONENTS, SCHEDULE AND TOURNAMENT BIG GUNS

And yet there's a tangible sense that Australia's absurdly successful netball team is, perhaps for the first time, attempting to shift the pressure onto another country.

Whether that is indicative of a genuine power shift at the top of the game will only become truly evident on July 21 when one of 16 competing nations lifts the trophy.

What's indisputable is that when Tracey Neville's Roses pipped Lisa Alexander's side by a single point at the Commonwealth Games, they thrust themselves into the very top echelon of a sport historically dominated almost exclusively by Australia and New Zealand.

Add in the Silver Ferns' recent slide, Jamaica's world No.2 standing and South Africa's slow but sure rise under Norma Plummer, and the 15th instalment promises to be the tightest yet.

"We've blown the gates wide open now," said England veteran Jo Harten.

England players celebrate winning the gold medal match at last year’s Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast. Picture: Getty Images
England players celebrate winning the gold medal match at last year’s Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast. Picture: Getty Images

"We don't know who's going to beat who on any given day, which is great for the event and for the sport, but it is scary as an athlete."

Of course, England's famous exploits bring a special kind of expectation further exacerbated by a watching home crowd.

Neville herself has acknowledged it will be "absolutely brutal" while Alexander, intriguingly, has predicted England's gold came a year prematurely.

"The last World Cup you would've thought that maybe (third-placed) England could've maybe got themselves into a final, but nobody was sure about that," Alexander said.

"Certainly now that's not the case … they're underdog favourites.

Diamonds star Liz Watson. Picture: Zak Simmonds
Diamonds star Liz Watson. Picture: Zak Simmonds

"I guess we're still world No.1, we've won all the tournaments since Comm Games last year so we're still doing pretty well, and I'm quite happy to put the pressure on the home country."

But what about Australia, themselves under the extreme kind of pressure that's meant to form diamonds but broke them on the Gold Coast last year?

Alexander made headlines then for saying Super Netball's import policy - six of the Roses' squad play in the league, as well as five of Jamaica's and three of South Africa's - created a situation whereby "our high-performance system (is) working for another country".

She's since described the tougher competition as a good thing.

And, to a certain extent, it may actually work in her squad's favour.

Diamonds coach Lisa Alexander has labelled England ‘underdog favourites’ at the Netball World Cup. Picture: AAP
Diamonds coach Lisa Alexander has labelled England ‘underdog favourites’ at the Netball World Cup. Picture: AAP

This Diamonds crop are the least experienced of the top-five countries, with nine of the 12 set to make their World Cup debuts.

But at least they're all playing weekly in the world's benchmark domestic league.

"It is making them (the foreigners) better players," said Diamonds vice-captain Liz Watson.

"And also their countries are becoming stronger and the games are getting a bit more physical and intense.

"But then when we transition into international netball it's not a big difference because we play these guys every week.

"They're either in our team or the opposition team so we've also got that inside knowledge on those little things players like to do. You analyse them so it becomes second nature."

Part of Australia's challenge will be navigating the early stages against less-fancied opposition in Northern Ireland, Zimbabwe and Sri Lanka, hit-outs unlikely to provide the ideal preparation for tougher assignments further down the line.

So what's a pass mark?

"We would be disappointed if we don't get into the final, that's for certain," Alexander said.

"And pretty much we would be wanting to win gold to get a pass mark for us.

"But that's fine, we've had that pressure of performance before. It's nothing more than what we put on ourselves anyway. That's part of why we've been winners and we're No.1.

"But it's not a two-horse race (between Australia and New Zealand) anymore, and that's a good thing for netball really because globally netball would not have survived if we don't get more countries being more competitive."

GROUP A

AUSTRALIA

Nickname: Diamonds

World ranking: 1

Coach: Lisa Alexander

Key player: Liz Watson

Best finish: Winners (1963, 1971, 1975, 1979, 1983, 1991, 1995, 1999, 2007, 2011, 2015)

Having sold themselves short with 2018 Commonwealth Games silver, getting back on the perch might be the Diamonds' steepestchallenge yet. And they must do it with a new-look squad carrying less than half the combined caps of England and New Zealand.

NORTHERN IRELAND

Nickname: Warriors

World ranking: 8

Coach: Dan Ryan

Key player: Fionnuala Toner

Best finish: 7th (1983)

Led by Australian and former Adelaide Thunderbirds coach Ryan, they'll be on the prowl for upsets and out to improve on theireighth place at the Commonwealth Games.

ZIMBABWE

Nickname: Gems

World ranking: 13

Coach: Lloyd Makunde

Key player: Adelaide Muskwe

Best finish: None

An unknown quantity on World Cup debut, the Gems will have nothing to lose against bigger teams like the Diamonds and couldwell aim to spring tactical surprises.

SRI LANKA

Nickname: N/A

World ranking: 18

Coach: Thilaka Jinadasa

Key player: Chathurangi Jayasooriya

Best finish: 9th (1963)

The reigning 2018 Asian champions are also the second-lowest ranked at the tournament ahead of only world No.26 Singaporeand may struggle with the transition intensity of many opponents.

THE BIG GUNS

JAMAICA

Nickname: Sunshine Girls

World ranking: 2

Coach: Marvette Anderson

Key player: Shamera Sterling

Best finish: 3rd (1991, 2003, 2007)

Went down by a single goal in the Commonwealth Games semi-final to eventual winners England and will be hell-bent on makingtheir first decider. Jhaniele Fowler will rack up goals if she gets service.

ENGLAND

Nickname: Roses

World ranking: 3

Coach: Tracey Neville

Key player: Geva Mentor

Best finish: 2nd (1975)

They've done it when they weren't supposed to at the Commonwealth Games, now can they do it when it's expected? The pressureis on but keep calm in big moments and this squad can go the whole way.

NEW ZEALAND

Nickname: Silver Ferns

World ranking: 4

Coach: Noeline Taurua

Key player: Laura Langman

Best finish: Winners (1967, 1979, 1987, 2003)

Recent results have been a worry for this powerhouse and a near-identical squad to the 2015 runners-up must pull out big gamesto claim a medal. Their draw is favourable but their odds are not.

SOUTH AFRICA

Nickname: SPAR Proteas

World ranking: 5

Coach: Norma Plummer

Key player: Karla Pretorius

Best finish: 2nd (1995)

Beat Jamaica or England to make the semis sounds easy, right? Wrong, even if the ever-improving Proteas do boast one of theworld's best players in defender Pretorius.

AUSTRALIA'S GROUP GAMES

v Northern Ireland

Friday July 12

9GEM, 7.30pm AEST

v Zimbabwe

Saturday July 13

9GEM, 5.45pm AEST

v Sri Lanka

Sunday July 14

Channel 9, 11.45pm AEST

News Corp Australia


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