GOLD COAST, Australia (Reuters) - The netball final at the Commonwealth Games will not be an Australia-New Zealand affair for the first time as the trans-Tasman rivals ended up in a semi-final collision course after the Silver Ferns sneaked into the last four.
Since netball was introduced into the Games programme in 1998, defending champions Australia have picked up three golds with New Zealand scooping the other two.
But that duopoly will be snapped in Saturday’s semi-final because a stuttering New Zealand finished runners-up to Pool B winners England, and only advanced to the last four thanks to a superior goal difference to Malawi and Uganda, with all three teams locked on six points.
World champions Australia overcame a tough Jamaican team 72-51 at a packed Gold Coast Convention Centre to finish top of Pool A unbeaten.
Sasher Henry’s Jamaican side will now face England after they had beaten New Zealand 54-45 earlier on Wednesday and pushed the Silver Ferns to the brink of elimination.
Janine Southby’s side not only lost to England, but also were upset by Malawi 57-53 on Sunday, showcasing something Australia coach Lisa Alexander had said prior to the tournament.
“There’s definitely been a seismic shift of power which is fantastic for international netball,” said Alexander.
Results in Pool A might not have quite borne out Alexander’s prediction — Australia still beat Northern Ireland 94-26 and Fiji 108-23 as they went through unbeaten.
Pool B, however, was far less predictable with New Zealand struggling into the semi-finals and suffering what Australia wing attack Madison Robinson had predicted beforehand.
“I think there will be an upset,” said Robinson. “To win a medal you have to work bloody hard because everyone’s out to knock you off. The plan is it’s not us.”
Instead it was their trans-Tasman rivals that suffered the upset, which created an outcry in New Zealand, where netball is the most popular sport for women and players in the Silver Ferns are as well known as the rugby-mad country’s world champion All Blacks.
Former players and coaches have said that Southby should resign, or be sacked, not just because of their Commonwealth Games campaign but because of a poor run of results in the past six months.
Captain Katrina Grant was also reduced to tears after the England game when interviewed by local media, indicating the pressure the team have found themselves under.
“You can’t underestimate the levels of anxiety that come with a big game,” said assistant coach Yvette McCausland-Durie.
“It hurts a lot and the challenge is we have to get up again.”
Reporting by Greg Stutchbury; Editing by Peter Rutherford and Pritha Sarkar