Australia await the winners of England against New Zealand in the Vitality Netball World Cup final, after the Diamonds beat South Africa in the joint-closest World Cup semi-final in history.
Despite holding a nine-goal advantage at one point, just as in their previous game against New Zealand, Australia were pegged back, as the crowd inside the M&S Bank Arena got firmly behind the underdogs.
In what was an absolutely pulsating game, South Africa made a mockery of their fifth-placed world ranking to run the holders and 11-time champions closer than many expected – with the two-goal winning margin making this the joint-closest World Cup semi-final ever.
Australia coach Lisa Alexander sprung a couple of surprises with her starting line-up, with both Caitlin Bassett and Courtney Bruce starting on the bench. For South Africa, Bongiwe Msomi – who limped out in the early stages of their previous match against England – was fit, and started at wing attack.
The South Africans were on the scoreboard first, through Lenize Potgieter, although she then missed an early chance to put daylight between the teams.
After that reprieve for Australia, the sides exchanged goals in the early stages, as an absorbing first quarter progressed. Nerves seemed to take hold of both midway through the quarter though, as a series of loose passes and some effective defensive pressure at both ends of the court put a temporary halt to the scoring at 6-6.
However, Australia’s intense pressure in the middle of the court was beginning to tell, and after they turned possession over, Caitlin Thwaites took the opportunity to put them ahead for the first time at 8-7.
Despite a couple of impressive interceptions by dynamic goal keeper Phumza Maweni, South Africa were unable to drag themselves back level, and an excellent piece of work by Jamie-Lee Price – combined with a held ball call against Potgieter – allowed the Diamonds to stretch their lead out to 14-10 after the first quarter.
Potgieter was again penalised for a held ball early in the second quarter, and mistakes were beginning to creep in elsewhere for the South Africans, as they were being forced to work hard for any piece of forward momentum.
The Australians, meanwhile, were continuing to find their shooters with comparative ease, and Thwaites and Tippett weren’t wasting any opportunities which came their way.
The lead stretched out to six, and was held at that margin for a period of time as Potgieter’s accuracy helped to keep the Proteas just about within touching distance.
However, that build-up of pressure told with a few minutes of the quarter remaining, as Paige Hadley and Jo Weston combined to force a turnover of possession. The ruthless nature of their team-mates’ shooting then ensured that the advantage was pushed out further, and although Tippett’s shot with the last action of the half didn’t land in time, the Diamonds still held a commanding 31-23 lead at the break.
South Africa needed a huge effort in the third quarter – and they got it.
Both sets of shooters were exceptional in the early stages, as the margin stuck at seven. However, when the Proteas needed a hero, up stepped Karla Pretorius, whose supreme reading of the game and timing turned possession over for the South Africans, who were finally able to take advantage of a glimpse of Australian weakness.
Three goals in a row from Potgieter and Maryka Holtzhausen brought them back to within three, and despite Thwaites having the final say in the quarter – and maintaining the Diamonds’ 100% record – the lead at the end of the third was down to 43-39.
Australia held the margin at four in the early stages of the fourth quarter, but when they were penalised for held ball, the South Africans – not to mention the majority of the crowd who had adopted the Proteas as they mounted their comeback – sensed an opportunity.
With ten minutes left, Potgieter reduced the deficit to one (45-44) and the already electric atmosphere was cranked up another level.
Two crucial Australian interventions – the first by Liz Watson and the second by Jamie-Lee Price – looked to have put the game firmly back in Australia’s grasp, but the Proteas weren’t done, and again came back to 50-49.
That vital additional turnover just proved elusive though, with the unerring accuracy of Thwaites – who finished at 100% – helping to edge Australia over the line, 55-53.
Australia’s Jo Weston said: “We’re happy to make the final. It was pretty tough out there – their shooting circle and their defensive line were really impressive today, so although we weren’t as happy as we could have been with the second half, we had enough lead from our solid first-half performance to hold them out.”
South Africa’s Erin Burger said: “I’m super proud. We knew we were representing our country and we had a lot to play for, and I think you could see that in our performance. We really left everything out on court – we wanted to have no regrets, and you could really see that in our performance.”
The gap was down to one goal at two points during the fourth quarter but – thanks in no small part to the 100% shooting record of Caitlin Thwaites – the Australians held on to win 55-53.
Elsewhere, Scotland finished their tournament on a high note, beating Barbados 53-42 to claim 11th spot – an improvement on their 12th-place finish four years ago.
Excellent second and fourth quarters made the difference for the Thistles, as they improve upon their 12th-place finish in 2015.
It was Scotland who made the most positive start, with a couple of excellent interventions from Claire Maxwell helping them to build an early 6-2 lead.
The Scottish shooters were working well together, although a foul called against goal attack Lynsey Gallagher allowed Barbados to turn possession over and fight back, bringing the deficit back to one at 8-7.
Latonia Blackman registered the first miss of the game, for either side, midway through the quarter, although an ongoing feature of the opening period was Shonica Wharton’s ability to gather and convert the rebound when her shooting partner was off target.
There were no such problems in the opposite circle, as Gallagher and Emma Barrie continued to shoot at 100% throughout the quarter. This, along with some fantastic movement from Gallagher, saw the lead extend out to three again at one point, but Barbados again closed the gap, and could have been back within one had they not been penalised for held ball in the final seconds of the quarter. That mistake allowed Scotland some breathing space at quarter time; 15-13 ahead.
That breathing space was made far more comfortable as the Scots made a blistering start to the second quarter. They added the first five goals of the quarter to take their lead out to 20-13, before Barrie registered the Thistles’ first miss of the game.
That miss ironically turned out to be more damaging for Barbados though, as inspirational goal keeper Shonette Azure-Bruce appeared to turn her ankle as she landed after claiming the rebound.
Scotland took advantage and kept up their momentum, stretching the lead out to 26-17.
A wonderful interception from Sarah McPhail gave Barrie the chance to take that lead out to ten, but she was unsuccessful on this occasion. A few moments later though, with the aid of a rebound off the post, she did convert, and Scotland were 27-17 up.
Barbados’ problems continued to mount, as Damisha Croney also limped off. They were able to close the gap slightly as the quarter wore on though, ending it 29-22 behind after a long pass found its target in Wharton, who made no mistake from under the post.
The second half began with the welcome sight of Azure-Bruce returning to the court. However, the start of the third quarter was error-strewn, with Barrie guilty of a couple of misses in quick succession as both teams failed to find their rhythm.
Barbados found their feet first, and started to bring the margin down. Real momentum was behind them when Tonisha Rock-Yaw produced a wonderful interception as they looked to get back within two, but Wharton was then penalised.
Scotland were able to get more of a grip on the quarter after that, extending the lead back out, despite mistakes again creeping in on both sides. During one particular period of the quarter, possession was changing hands on a regular basis as both teams struggled again, although the Scots did finish the quarter well, netting the last two goals to take a 39-33 lead into the fourth.
With what was their last throw of the dice, Barbados made a fast start to the last quarter, with Wharton moving them back to within three at 39-36. With a potential comeback looming, a composed shot from Gallagher and a great piece of defensive work by Emily Nicholl halted their momentum though, and Scotland seized back the initiative.
The didn’t look back from then, eventually easing to a fourth quarter and overall victory as both Barrie and Gallagher scored seven each to take the final score up to 53-42.
This afternoon will see England face New Zealand for the right to join Australia in the final. The final, along with the bronze medal match, takes place tomorrow.
The full tournament schedule is available to view here.
Courtesy of the Netball World Cup 2019