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Netball: All-conquering England close in on perfect year


England are three days and three games from completing an unbeaten year. This afternoon in Port Elizabeth Anna Mayes’ buoyant side start a  Tri-Series tournament with a match against South Africa, followed by Trinidad & Tobago tomorrow and then, should those two encounters have been successfully negotiated, a final on Friday. Three wins would seal a perfect 2013 and raise hopes of a golden 2014 even higher.

England, ranked third in the world, are expected to win all three games, the expectation the result of a steady improvement since Mayes took over two years ago. It sees England now among the favourites to win Common-wealth Games gold in Glasgow next year and even push for a first world title in Australia in 2015.

It will be a confident side, bolstered by the South African sunshine and a day’s safari, that takes on the hosts today at the Nelson Mandela Metro University. “We have had a good year, we are undefeated as an England  side and we want to keep that run going,” said centre Serena Guthrie. “We have high expectations of this series.”

Whatever happens over the next few days, the highlight of 2013 will remain a whitewash of Australia, the world champions and currently ranked  No 2 in the world behind New Zealand. To place the 3-0 victory in context, England had only previously beaten Australia twice, in 1981 and 2010.

“The Australian series was a stepping stone,” said Guthrie. “We didn’t actually focus too much on Australia – we focused on ourselves and our own goals and processes to make it probable to beat these teams. As long as we stay focused and in our own bubble we should be all right on the way to the Commonwealths.”

Another 3-0 series victory followed at home against South Africa this summer making it nine straight wins for the year. This has become a confident group of players.

“Definitely,” said Guthrie. “We are in a revamped squad with lots of new beliefs and cultures that have been instilled within us since Anna has taken over as head coach. We are on that ladder, stepping up and taking on the one and two in the world much more.

“She has set down the law and every-one is sticking to it and pushing each other to the limit and trying to out-do each other. Once you start doing that there is so much more opportunity to improve and really grow the group.”

England’s success is reflective of a sport on the up. Numbers playing the game have risen rapidly – 34 per cent up over four years – and that has led to increased funding from Sport England. So impressed were they that the latest funding settlement saw a 30 per cent rise to £25m, only £5m less than grassroots football receives.

“It has evolved a lot from the schoolgirl, stereotypical game – if you come along and watch you will see how physical it is and how fit you have to be to play and hold your own,” said Guthrie, a PE teacher at Kingswood school in Bath. “It is a quick, fast  modern game.”