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Tracey Neville and England just two wins away from Netball World Cup "dream"

Tracey Neville and England just two wins away from Netball World Cup
© Reuters
Neville now stands just two wins away from hitting her target.

When Tracey Neville took over as England netball coach four years ago she set out ambitious plans to shatter the Antipodean dominance of the sport and deliver her nation's first world crown.

Neville now stands just two wins away from hitting her target as her team prepare to face New Zealand in the semi-final in Liverpool on Saturday amid the kind of atmosphere she admits she could scarcely have imagined.

A succession of 10,000-sell-out crowds have buffeted England through the tournament, including a dominant win over fellow contenders South Africa on Thursday that only served to fuel the fervour around the squad.

Neville said: "My dream was to have a stadium full of red and white and I've never had it in my life, but now we have 10,000 people in the stadium and they are absolutely amazing.

"They've been amazing throughout the whole tournament. At first it was a bit intimidating – I wasn't expecting them to come and make so much noise, and it's come to be something that is driving us on as our eighth player."

England will need all the help they can get against the Silver Ferns, who proved in their single-basket defeat to favourites Australia on Thursday that they have emphatically recovered from the misery of missing out on a Commonwealth Games medal for the first time last year.

In captain Laura Langman, the New Zealanders – who have featured in the last five world finals stretching back to 1999 – boast one of the world's great players whom England's increasingly talismanic equivalent, Serena Guthrie, will be required to match.

Last year's historic Commonwealth Games success provided the platform for other world-class stars to emerge, such as intimidating goalkeeper Geva Mentor and sharp-shooter Jo Harten, who scored from 30 of her 33 attempts against the South Africans.

New Zealand
New Zealand have featured in the last four world finals (Nigel French/PA)

More importantly that success clearly helped nurture a powerful team ethic which Harten believes could also prove crucial as they prepare to step up to these significantly bigger tests to come.

"For me it's all about the banter," said Harten. "It's important to try to have fun because it's such a pressure-cooker of emotion.

"You're playing in a World Cup and you're the centre of attention so if you don't enjoy this you never will."

Helen Housby
Helen Housby has formed a crucial partnership with Jo Harten up front (Nigel French/PA)

Harten's partnership with Helen Housby has proved a significant factor in England's stride through the group stages, with big wins over Jamaica and South Africa underscoring the recent strides the team has made.

"The partnership has been bubbling away for five years – it doesn't just happen overnight," added Harten.

"We've been working solidly on our own games, then we come together to try to fit those jigsaw pieces together."

Neville, who has indicated her intention to step down at the end of the tournament, has seen her brave selection choices – including axeing Gold Coast captain Ama Agbeze – pay off handsomely in the tournament to date.

And the strength in depth could prove crucial again in a potential Sunday final against the Australians, who are expected to overcome South Africa and do their bit in setting up the World Cup final those 10,000 ticket-holders crave to see.

For down-to-earth captain Guthrie, however, such prospects remain mere fanciful notions as she prepares to face a team with such a proud recent record in the competition.

"People always want to talk about these events and every team is confident in their own way," said Guthrie.

"We just have to focus on ourselves, and on each match. It is all going to be decided out there."

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Tracey Neville pictured in 2015
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