Diamonds braced for Netball WC defence

Australian Diamonds prepare for their World Cup defence. Narelle Spangher, Netball Australia

Australia's netballers begin their World Cup defence in Liverpool on Friday in what's expected to be the most competitive event of the tournament's 55-year history.

The Diamonds, who have won the last four titles and 11 overall, open their Group A campaign against a Northern Ireland side coached by former Adelaide Thunderbirds mentor Dan Ryan.

Top-ranked Australia and New Zealand, who are fourth, have contested five of the last six finals and been the dominant two sides in the international game for the last 30 years.

However, world No.3 England's dramatic last-second win over the Diamonds in the Commonwealth gold medal match on the Gold Coast last year has increased expectations of a first ever world crown for the host nation, who have not played in a final since 1975.

Jamaica, ranked second, agonisingly missed out on reaching the Commonwealth final after one-goal defeat to England, and will also fancy their chances having beaten the Silver Ferns to win bronze last April.

Australia coach Lisa Alexander is relishing the prospect of a high quality tournament and believes there is no team that can be considered outright favourites.

"I think New Zealand and even South Africa may also be a threat," Alexander told Sky Sports.

"England's half of the draw is tough and you never know what Jamaica will bring."

Despite her team's dominance of the sport, Alexander admits her biggest challenge is to keep the players focused and not allow confidence be overtaken by complacency.

"New Zealand are in our side of the draw and there's a few players who will be appearing in their last World Cup so they will be hungry for success," she said.

"There's definitely a mental factor to consider and it's the job of the coaching staff to keep the players confident but not over-confident."

Only three players from the Diamonds side that lifted the trophy in Sydney four years ago remain in the current squad and with nine World Cup debutants Australia's squad is the least experienced of the top five nations.

However, in skipper Caitlin Bassett they boast one of the premier goal-shooters in the world game, despite an indifferent Super Netball season by her lofty standards.

The 31-year-old was forced to sit out this week's two warm-up matches against English club sides due to a mild concussion sustained from an accidental elbow to the head during training.

But Basset is adamant the problem won't force her out of Friday's opener, which gets underway at 1900 (AEST).

"I had a bit of a headache so we're being cautious," Bassett said this week.

"As physical as netball is getting these days, it's important we stay on top of things like concussion and we have to be smart so that I'm ready for when the competition starts."

The competition will see a new format this year with teams playing in two preliminary stages before the playoffs.

The Diamonds will also play first-stage preliminary matches against Zimbabwe (ranked 13th) and Sri Lanka (18th).

The top three teams in Group A and B will move through to play in Group F, while the top three sides in Group C and D will move into Group G.