Sixteen months after their dramatic win over Australia sent the profile of English netball soaring to new heights, Tracey Neville’s squad made a winning start to their World Cup campaign at a packed Liverpool Arena.
England’s 64-32 group stage win over Uganda was business-like and wholly expected but the sense of occasion in which it was played out illustrated the enormous strides made by the sport since Commonwealth Games gold.
A sell-out crowd in the home side of the two-court arena, with a vocal group of Ugandan supporters adding to the atmosphere, was testament to the surging interest in England’s bid to further dent Australia’s dominance of the sport.
And it was a far cry from the last Netball World Cup staged in England, in Birmingham in 1995, which passed by relatively unnoticed with little hype and even less expectation.
Amid such an unusually raucous atmosphere, Helen Housby deserved credit for being accurate with all but one of her 19 shots before she was replaced by Rachel Dunn during the third quarter.
Goal attack Joanne Harten top-scored with 29 for a victory built on the tireless central presence of Serena Guthrie, who took over as captain after Ama Agbeze, who led England to gold last year, was dropped from the squad.
The column inches reserved for that surprise announcement were further testament to the sport’s new profile and it will only continue to build as they move closer towards the later stages of the competition.
England can expect even more convincing wins over the weekend against Scotland and Samoa, which serve as virtual warm-up matches before they must step up to challenge the tournament dominance from Down Under.
Only then will the pressures of England’s hard-won profile begin to bite, but there were few signs of nerves against a Ugandan team, led by the impressive Peace Proscovia, who are far from considered tournament also-rans.
Proscovia’s excellent interruptions held England back early on before their power in the centre began to tell and they turned a 15-6 lead at the end of the first quarter into a relatively emphatic 31-18 advantage at half-time.
The lead extended to 44-26 at the end of the third, and with Neville, perhaps mindful of those sterner tests that await, resting her tireless captain Guthrie, England ultimately eased over the line.
Australia captain Caitlin Bassett had insisted this week that the pressure rested squarely on England’s shoulders in light of their Commonwealth Games heroics plus their repeat win over the Diamonds in January’s Quad Series.
But there could be no doubt about the holders’ determination to make an early statement as they began the competition by sweeping aside Northern Ireland 88-24 in their opening group stage game.
New Zealand were less emphatic 64-45 victors over Malawi, while Jamaica, who came agonisingly close to beating England on the Gold Coast and are many experts’ tip to reach the final, outclassed Fiji 85-29.