With two tours under her wing as England head coach, Jess Thirlby reflects on the Vitality Roses’ journey to date and looks towards their toughest tests yet in the forthcoming Vitality Nations Cup.
Since being announced as Tracey Neville’s successor at the end of July last year, Thirlby has hardly had a minute to pause for thought.
Instead, she has managed the dynamic of experienced Roses players taking time away from the Test arena, she has put together a new Roses squad and has led them on tours to Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
Now, as we move full-steam ahead into a new calendar year, it’s time for another test – leading the Roses on home courts against some of the most talented netballing nations in the world.
England Roses Squad for Vitality Nations Cup
Thirlby is set to do this with a largely unchanged squad from the one which won the series 2-1 in South Africa and she believes, despite the group’s relative inexperience, they are ready to flourish again.
“I think that we’ve got a group that thrive off being at home as opposed to getting too anxious about it,” Thirlby said to Sky Sports in the build-up to the competition.
“I believe we’re going to see the best of this group to close this initial international period before we build again.
“I’ve got tonnes of information to go on and this is just another opportunity to see a slightly different group again.”
Vitality Nations Cup 2020 – All live on Sky Sports & streamed on YouTube
The Vitality Nations Cup brings together the world champions New Zealand, South Africa, Jamaica and the Roses across four match-days in three different cities in England, with every match live on Sky Sports and streamed on YouTube.
Thirlby knows the Silver Ferns, despite missing three experienced players, will still be incredibly strong and the two other nations present considerable challenges too.
Every time the Roses step on court they want to win, but equally the head coach has other objectives in play when it comes to the four match-days on the horizon.
“I think whatever happens in terms of outcome of results, for me a real measure of success will be exposing this group and seeing what levels we can reach out on court in terms of our performance,” Thirlby said.
It is a very different challenge when you have to meet very different discrete styles of play so close together and some players may find that easier than others. That in itself is a big challenge but it’s one that we welcome because it’s ultimately the landscape that you operate in during a major championship.
The platform the Roses are building from is their 2-1 series victory over South Africa at the end of last year. It was a series from which the head coach gained a huge amount of food for thought, as did her players.
“Both nations both knew it was going to be a highly-competitive series. Prior to the matches, I definitely had every confidence in the team but maybe the public weren’t quite as sure,” Thirlby said openly.
“We exposed all of the players we took out there which was key. But, we did it at a good pace, we blended them in at the right time and to the right extent.
“The series victory was brilliant and was a confidence boost to the squad. It reinforced to them what I already knew, and that is that they’re a very talented group who deserved to be there in their own right.”
The tour affirmed to Thirlby the extent of the character and heart that her Roses side have. It provided her with live insights into players’ work under pressure and what she witnessed bodes well for the months and years to come.
“One of the moments for me was in the opening game. With two matches still to come and going from normal to extra-time, I looked at the players on court and could see how much it meant to them.
“You would be forgiven for thinking that it was a major championship moment because of the energy, the commitment and the passion of the players to get over the line. That was really impressive,” she said.
“I looked people in the eye or I could see through their body language what it meant and thought that it was really special for a group that are yet to really consolidate as a squad to show such character.”
??????? ALL THREE TESTS ??
You can watch all of @EnglandNetball's matches in South Africa back in full at our #YouTube streams below. Enjoy!
3⃣: https://t.co/uMsp4mxzBs pic.twitter.com/PnPvUi45TN
After that, Thirlby was encouraged by the collective performance improvement shown in the second Test, and that players were able to brush aside nerves. The final Test, albeit a lost one, provided her with more information.
“In the third, although we didn’t go on to win, to see a team come back from eight or nine goals down in international netball was pleasing,” said Thirlby.
“That was a great insight and it allowed me to see some of the match-winners and players who can sense those moments.
“There weren’t any medals this time around but seeing that [spirit], is integral to the destination that we’re heading in.”
First time I've ever had a bird poo on me in a netball game! Didn't bring us the luck we needed but im still smiling because this series & this team have been amazing! So proud & I've loved every second of it! Thx for the support everyone ?? #WhoAreWe #ENGLAND @EnglandNetball https://t.co/omzaODPGQP
As is the case with all teams, having a strong set of on-court leaders helps to accelerate the side’s development and Thirlby has put her faith in captain Natalie Haythornthwaite and vice-captain Laura Malcolm.
After the duo led by example in South Africa, the head coach saw no reason to change their roles for this competition.
“People migrate towards them for the right reasons and they certainly demonstrate the values and behaviours the group have said that we want to see and be known for,” she said.
They work really well together and complement each other really well. They communicate really well with the players and with the staff group in a really open and honest way. It’s very collaborative. They very much lead by example, they have a great work ethic and are not shy in terms of feeding back and being constructive.
Jess Thirlby on Nat Haythornthwaite & Laura Malcolm
“With such a close proximity to the last Tests, I think it was too good an opportunity to not enable them to continue in their leadership roles.”
The Roses’ Nations Cup campaign commences against the Silver Ferns on January 19 before meetings with South Africa and Jamaica respectively, and Thirlby is open about their target.
“I’m very grateful that this type of competition has been created,” the head coach said.
“I really welcome the format with the first versus second and third versus fourth matches. I’m looking forward to that. I think it gives us a real stretch target to try and make that first versus second match.
“The purpose of that target is that the more finals that we can get into the better prepared we will be come Birmingham (Commonwealth Games 2022).
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