England face Jamaica with high hopes and eye on netball title defense | England netball team
After a historic series victory over New Zealand in Christchurch in September, the final challenge for England on the path to Commonwealth title defense next summer is three tests against Jamaica at home, starting Sunday in Copper Box Arena in London. If expectations were already high for the Roses after beating the World Champions in their backyard two months ago, the first time England have won a series in New Zealand, then the team nominated by the head coach Jess Thirlby has only lifted them up again. Following.
With Jo Harten, Stacey Francis-Bayman, Natalie Haythornthwaite and Helen Housby all returning from the Australian Super Netball League and in the fold, the England squad taking to the pitch will be the strongest since winning the bronze at the 2019 World Cup in Liverpool. It may also explain the confident speech in the English camp and why they are aiming for nothing less than a clean slate. “We want to get a 3-0 at home,” said Sonia Mkoloma, England assistant coach and former international.
The challenge, as always with the England netball regime, is to ensure that those who participate in the Australian league integrate with players in the UK Vitality Netball Superleague. So far, the main focus of Thirlby’s tenure has been to maximize the upward pressure from those arriving on the more established players. Mkoloma knows that when it comes to finding the right balance, it is their responsibility.
“Everyone’s position is being questioned,” says Mkoloma. “As a coaching staff it’s exciting and it’s a little bit of pressure for us because you have to make sure you select the right players to do the right job at the right time. For many years England didn’t have much depth. So the fact that we now have local players… and we have players that sit in one of the best leagues coming back, I think that just adds some extra excitement for us as coaches.
The inclusion of 19-year-old Funmi Fadoju in the 16-man squad is a perfect example of this quest for balance and the confidence England have in their home players. “When there is talent, there is talent,” Mkoloma says of Fadoju. “For her, it’s just a great opportunity to keep getting better and better.”
But when belief is high, scrutiny quickly follows, and the big sticking point for England revolves around their midfield. Haythornthwaite remains the only wing attack specialist named to the squad. Laura Malcolm and Sophie Drakeford-Lewis, the other two offering the job, can play it but wing attack is certainly not their first choice. Concerns abound as there is an obvious weakness in the Roses range.
Add to that that Jamaica’s power can be found in both bookends – Jhaniele Fowler, the world’s greatest shooter in one circle, and Shamera Sterling, the world’s best goalkeeper, in the other – and he becomes it is clear that the battle for ownership of the mid-court will be critical. It’s no wonder that Mkoloma identifies it as an area of ”excitement”.
Critics could identify a glaring imbalance in having eight wing defenders and three wing forwards, but Mkoloma sees an opportunity. What better way is there to challenge your depth than where you know the battle is going to be greatest? “For me it’s going to be exciting to see how we fare against their midfielder,” said the former technical director of the New South Wales Swifts. “We have a lot of midfield players, which gives us a lot of options and it gives us the opportunity to test players. It’s about what our midfielder can do against the Jamaican midfielder.
Throw them to the back of the part of the field where the game is likely to be won and lost, and the cream will surely rise. Is it genius? Time will tell us. It is an experience that will reveal how prepared England are for what lies ahead.
The Jamaican squad are now more complete than those England have faced before. Their ranks have reinforcements that only further support their star players. The defensive end, though missing Jodi-Ann Ward, will have other proven Super Netball players Latanya Wilson and Kadie-Ann Dehaney, the latter of whom won the post of Prime Minister in Australia with Melbourne Vixens in 2020.
The “test” of this series of tests need not be emphasized. The last time the two met, in January 2020, Jamaica won 70-66. After London, the series moves to Nottingham for the last two games on December 4 and 5. “They pose a huge threat,” concedes Mkoloma, and with the Commonwealth title defense looming next year, the netball world will be watching how the Roses fare against their oldest rivals.