BIRMINGHAM, England — It was historic. It was beautiful.
Jamaica's Sunshine Girls left the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham with yet another major scalp and will today take the court in their first senior international final when they face Thursday's group stage victims, Australia, at 8:30 pm (2:30 pm Jamaica time) for the gold medal.
The Jamaicans produced some of the best netball they have ever delivered, crushing world number-two New Zealand 67-51 in the semi-finals of the Commonwealth Games to continue their assault on netball's status quo and ensure their best ever finish at the Commonwealth Games.
Head Coach Connie Francis warned that the job is not yet complete as the Jamaicans get ready to face a team they had never beaten prior to Thursday's final group-stage game, for a shot at their first gold medal at this level.
"It's surreal, trust me. I know that we could win this game but I didn't think that we would win by that margin, but I can tell you that I'm with a pack of wolves. When it comes to these girls, they're very hungry and they know that their expectation for the gold is very high and they're just aiming for it and I'm so proud to be there to see the quality of netball that they're playing here," Francis told the Jamaica Observer.
"The team itself is not satisfied because we knew that the gold was reachable even before the start of the tournament, the girls were clear that they were going for this one. This is it for us and I believe that this is our season. Our netball has been up and down but nevertheless, we have been positive and we grew as a team," Francis added.
In truth, the New Zealanders, who at points trailed by more than 20 points, were fortunate to end the contest just 16 behind the Jamaicans who were in their opponents' faces from the opening centre pass to the final whistle, forcing two turnovers in the opening exchanges and racing to a 4-0 lead that obviously unsettled the Silver Ferns.
Defenders Shamera Sterling, Jodi-Ann Ward and Latanya Wilson were a constant nuisance for the New Zealanders, who hardly had time to breathe in possession, before being pressed by rabid Jamaicans.
The pressure was telling with New Zealand, who were made to work overtime for every point, uncharacteristically surrendering eight interceptions and being forced into several other turnovers throughout the game.
At the other end, centre Nicole Dixon-Rochester – the team's metronome, provided 20 assists and three interceptions and linked well with all-action winger Khadijah Williams, whose 23 assists was the most by any player on the court, to feed the unstoppable force, Jhaniele Fowler.
Bad pass, good pass; one defender, two defenders – it did not matter, Fowler had all the answers, with her deceptive balance and agility proving a nightmare for the New Zealand defensive circle, with GK Sulu-Tone Fitzpatrick on the receiving end of the brunt of the manhandling before she was mercifully pulled in the second half.
In the end, Fowler left the court with six minutes to play, to rapturous applause from an electric crowd, having scored a perfect 54 goals from 54 attempts. She ended the game as the top goal scorer in the tournament with 227 goals from 234 attempts for a 97 per cent accuracy.
"The job is not done. As soon as the last whistle blows tomorrow [today], that's when the job will be done. That's when my emotions will explode but I'm looking forward to seeing how we recover, get ready and go out there tomorrow and try to win that gold medal," Fowler stated.
"I am super proud of my teammates on how we stood up, how we started, how we maintained our lead, and how we were disciplined and focused. I am super proud of us," Fowler added. "The Australia victory definitely gave us a sense of confidence. However, we knew that our work on the court on the day is going to have to speak for itself because no team is going to come and roll over, given that we beat the number one team, so we had to just go out there and dominate."
Shanice Beckford, who aggravated an injury towards the end of the game, produced another impressive showing, scoring 10 goals from 10 attempts to go with her 21 assists.
The Jamaicans won bronze at the 2018, 2014 and 2002 Commonwealth Games. They will now become only the fourth team to contest the gold medal match at the Commonwealth Games after Australia, New Zealand and last games' champions England.