Vitality Roses: Jess Thirlby says Jamaica series is superb preparation for Commonwealth Games
England’s Vitality Roses will renew an intense rivalry with Jamaica’s Sunshine Girls on Sunday, and prior to their three-Test series, head coach Jess Thirlby discusses the Sunshine Girls’ style and the Roses’ expectations with Sky Sports.
Thirlby has named a 16-player squad for this ‘Roses Reunited’ series, which features three Test matches against the fourth-ranked nation in the world.
The opening Test at the Copper Box Arena on Sunday, live on Sky Sports and streamed on the Sky Sports YouTube channel, will be followed by two matches in Nottingham on December 4 and 5.
It will be the first time since the Vitality Netball Nations Cup in January 2020 that the Roses will run out in front of their home fans and Thirlby cannot wait for her side to take to court.
“There’s a longstanding history between England and Jamaica’s Sunshine Girls, one that spans across decades,” England’s head coach said. “It’s always such a competitive fixture.
“Jamaica’s playing style is one that I really admire; I love the fact that it’s very flamboyant. It’s certainly a very reactive style of play, so they cover a huge amount of ground without being really tight on us, body-on-body.
“That’s a big challenge, but actually there are a lot of learnings that we can take from playing against New Zealand’s defence recently and we’ll look to put them into this series.
“As I said, the Sunshine Girls are flamboyant, full of energy and the passion that they have – particularly when meeting England – is considerable. Jamaica’s players seem to go up a gear against us.”
Alongside their distinctive defensive play, Jhaniele Fowler, a three-time Suncorp Super Netball Player of the Year, is critical in their shooting end.
At 6ft 5in and having been part of the Sunshine Girls’ squad since 2010, Fowler provides an anchor up front and is a real conundrum for opponents.
“Jhaniele has been their target-shooter for the last number of years,” Thirlby said. “However, they’ve always got such great playmaking GAs which means you have to consider both athletes and not be distracted by one.
“The turnovers that we will look to get can’t necessarily be that final ball into Jhaniele, because she’s just so accurate under the post.”
In terms of Thirlby’s squad and the athletes she is charged with defusing Jamaica’s threats, her 16-player senior team and the England ‘A’ squad selected, highlights the work that she has put in since taking over from Tracey Neville.
England’s strength in depth is now greater than ever and during this series, the return of Jo Harten and Nat Haythornthwaite, alongside Helen Housby, provide an experienced edge to their attacking line-up.
Harten will be back in the red of England for the first time since the Vitality Netball World Cup, while Housby and Haythornthwaite arrive with the confidence of recently securing a Suncorp Super Netball title.
Stacey Francis-Bayman, a team-mate of Fowler at West Coast Fever, will be able to provide great insights for the Roses and 19-year-old defender Funmi Fadoju will be someone who will thrive off that knowledge.
It’s the first time that Fadoju has been named in the main senior squad, and Thirlby spoke openly about what the coming weeks will bring for this talented teenager.
“Funmi’s ability to win ball can’t be ignored. I love that she plays on instinct and we’re working with her and club to make sure that we manage her move into senior international netball [well] and the experience of the pressures that come with it, both the physical and mental pressures.
“It’s fantastic that Funmi has pushed herself into this 16-player senior squad and she has every right to push further and compete for a place in the matchday 12.
“But also, she can hit out against Jamaica as part of that England ‘A’ group too. I’m really looking forward to her working with Liv Murphy and Liana Leota and understanding the feedback from all three of them about that experience.
“We want to ensure that the England environment is one that Funmi feels is a safe space, and one that she can express herself in, that’s what we all enjoyed so much about her work in Superleague.”
England’s recent record against Jamaica contains just two victories out of their last six meetings, however those triumphs were recorded at the most important points.
The first was en route to winning the title at the 2018 Commonwealth Games and the second, during the Vitality Netball World Cup in 2019.
“We now want to build some confidence between those major competitions and carry some success into Birmingham next year against this particular nation,” Thirlby said.
“Every time we hit a competition now, our intention is to win it, because that’s part of preparing a team for a major tournament.
“2013 was the last time that we beat a Jamaica in a three-match series. That’s a long time ago, so in some ways, we’re not the favourites going up against this nation. Equally, the expectation from our fans is that we win another series after winning in New Zealand.
“This series we want to look to reconnecting certain combinations as well as testing and trying some players in positions that perhaps we’ve not seen them in as much,” the head coach added.
“There are elements that we want to see if they translate over from the New Zealand series, both collectively as a team and with individuals’ work too.
“This series will be a great challenge for us. It’s one that we’re really looking forward to as we don’t get to play Jamaica as frequently as we would like to and it’s going to be superb preparation for next year’s Commonwealth Games in Birmingham.”