World Cup thriller: Diamonds edge closer to Roses showdown

Australia are one step closer to a Commonwealth Games final rematch with England after avoiding the Roses in the semis.

England eased past South Africa 58-47 on Friday morning (AEST) to top their group and book a final-four showdown against New Zealand on Saturday.

It means the Diamonds, who pipped the Silver Ferns by a single point to finish first in their group, will play South Africa for a place in Sunday's final.

England put on a ruthless display against the SPAR Proteas to maintain an unbeaten run at this tournament matched only by defending champions Australia.

They missed skipper Bongi Msomi, who limped off injured during the first half, and have 24 hours to recuperate before former Diamonds coach Norma Plummer does battle with her successor Lisa Alexander.

Maria Folau of New Zealand lines up a shot as Jo Weston of Australia attempts to block
Maria Folau of New Zealand lines up a shot as Jo Weston of Australia attempts to block

A weak 19-11 first quarter let down a South African side that otherwise kept up with Tracey Neville's hosts and won the final term 17-15.

"England were on the money, it was pretty obvious," Plummer said.

"We were nervous as this is the first time we've been here in 25 years. It's made us realise the next two games you have to go in and handle the pressure.

"They were all nervous. You don't process things when you're nervous and things go past you. It's a real wake up call that you've got to be able to handle it.

"Australia were lucky to not draw with New Zealand so it's all there to play for."

It's finally confirmed: the Diamonds mean business - but only just.

After five preliminary-stage walkovers, Australia's Netball World Cup defence has survived its first proper test with a breathtaking last-gasp one-goal win over New Zealand to top their group and set up a semi-final date with either Commonwealth Games nemesis England or rising power South Africa - the only other two remaining unbeaten sides (who will play each other early Friday (AEST).

 

Australia's Caitlin Bassett, left, and New Zealand's Jane Watson battle for the ball on Thursday night. Picture: AP
Australia's Caitlin Bassett, left, and New Zealand's Jane Watson battle for the ball on Thursday night. Picture: AP

But the green and gold will be bristling with confidence for Saturday's final-four tie after Maria Folau uncharacteristically missed a shot on the buzzer that would have given her side a draw, ensuring a 50-49 finish.

"You just know they're going to do it," Diamonds coach Lisa Alexander said.

"I've experienced it I don't know how many times. Credit to New Zealand, they threw everything at us, lots of different combinations. I was pleased we held on in the end."

It meant a 12th win from the last 13 against the old enemy across the ditch, in a tie that swung savagely this way and that and featured a second-half comeback that threatened to break the world's top-ranked nation.

But even the courtside support of Israel Folau in the stands wasn't enough for wife Maria and her Silver Ferns, revitalised under new coach Noeline Taurua yet unable to provide answers to Australia's determined defence.

Sacked Wallaby Israel Folau watches from the stands on Thursday. Folau’s wife Maria was playing for New Zealand. Picture: Getty Images
Sacked Wallaby Israel Folau watches from the stands on Thursday. Folau’s wife Maria was playing for New Zealand. Picture: Getty Images

For all the eyes on the sacked rugby star, there were just as many on Alexander's line-up.

Five matches straight she's tinkered and tested vastly differing starting sevens against lesser-ranked adversaries, and only now revealed what she considers her strongest - or, at least, the most likely to rattle the Silver Ferns' rhythm.

Captain and goalshooter Caitlin Bassett (37/41) scored the winner and was in fine fettle in partnership with goal attack Steph Wood, more settled than her previous outings and enjoying the service from wing attack Kelsey Brown and centre Liz Watson.

As ever with these teams, this match carried intensity befitting a final - and that was before considering who else was there.

Folau, perhaps Australian sport's most polarising figure, cut a low-profile presence.

He was polite when approached by The Daily Telegraph but opted against speaking to media on advice from a male companion.

 

Jamie-Lee Price of Australia challenges Laura Langman of New Zealand. Picture: Getty Images
Jamie-Lee Price of Australia challenges Laura Langman of New Zealand. Picture: Getty Images

The Folau on the court has been silent too in the wake of criticism for endorsing her husband's crowd-funding efforts to help pay his legal fees against Rugby Australia for terminating his contract over a social media post claiming "hell awaits" gay people.

And yet she was the Silver Fern to elicit the biggest cheer from the Australia-heavy crowd.

She was, as usual, a dead-eye from distance bar that final missed shot, converting 21 from 24 attempts.

But the 32-year-old was put off more than once by dogged Diamonds goalkeeper and player of the match Courtney Bruce, who helped turn the match by tiny moments.

Like when the West Coast Fever captain tipped the ball to Jo Weston and they pulled ahead 11-9, eventually finishing the opening term 13-10.

 

Maria Folau lines up a shot for the Silver Ferns. Picture: Getty Images
Maria Folau lines up a shot for the Silver Ferns. Picture: Getty Images

 

Or in the second, when she intervened again to spark a transition that put Australia up 19-14 to help finish the first half ahead 28-22.

Bruce and Weston forced Taurua into multiple shooting changes, replacing Ameliaranne Ekenasio with Bailey Mes then moving Mes to shooter and reintroducing Ekenasio.

The new combinations worked and New Zealand rallied to win the third term 14-12 and pushed the Diamonds all the way as tight one-on-one defence broke down passages of play and the umpire had a field day with the whistle for obstruction.

Australia played the ball around to eat up time and it was just as well after Ekenasio drew New Zealand level with one minute 20 seconds on the clock.

Up stepped Bassett, under pressure, to sink the eventual winner before Folau's late, late miss.

 

AUSTRALIA 50 (Caitlin Bassett 38 Steph Wood 12) NEW ZEALAND 49 (Maria Folau 22 Ameliaranne Ekenasio 18 Bailey Mes 9) at M&S Bank Arena

News Corp Australia

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