England face Jamaica with high hopes and an eye on netball title defence

Sport

After a historic series win against New Zealand in Christchurch in September the latest challenge for England on the way to their Commonwealth title defence next summer is three Tests against Jamaica on home soil, beginning on Sunday at London’s Copper Box Arena. If expectations were already high for the Roses after defeating the world champions in their back yard two months ago, the first time England have won a series in New Zealand, then the squad named by the head coach, Jess Thirlby, has only raised them even more.

With Jo Harten, Stacey Francis-Bayman, Natalie Haythornthwaite and Helen Housby all home from Australia’s Super Netball League and in the fold, the England team that will take to the court will be their strongest since they won bronze at the 2019 World Cup in Liverpool. It may also explain the confident talk in the England camp and why they are targeting nothing less than a clean sweep. “We want to get 3-0 on home soil,” says Sonia Mkoloma, England’s assistant coach and a former international.

The challenge, as ever with England’s netball regime, is ensuring that those who compete in the Australian league mesh with the players from the UK’s Vitality Netball Superleague. The primary focus of Thirlby’s tenure so far has been maximising the upward pressure exerted by those coming through on the more established players. Mkoloma knows that when it comes to getting that balance right, the buck stops with them.

“Everybody’s position is being challenged,” Mkoloma says. “As coaching staff, it’s exciting and it’s a bit of pressure on us because you’ve got to make sure you’re selecting the right players to do the right job at the right time. For many years England didn’t have a lot of depth. So, the fact that we have now players who are homegrown … and we’ve got the players that are sitting in one of the top leagues returning, I think it just adds extra excitement for us as coaches.”

The inclusion of the 19-year-old Funmi Fadoju in the 16-strong squad is a perfect example of that quest for balance and of the confidence England have in their local players. “When there’s talent, there’s talent,” Mkoloma says of Fadoju. “For her, it’s just a great opportunity to keep getting better and better.”

But when belief is elevated scrutiny quickly follows, and the big sticking point for England pivots around their mid-court. Haythornthwaite remains the only specialist wing attack named in the team. Laura Malcolm and Sophie Drakeford-Lewis, the two others who offer the position, can play there but wing attack is certainly not their first-choice role. Concerns then abound that there is an obvious weakness in the Roses lineup.

Throw in to the mix that the thrust of Jamaica’s might can be found in both bookends – Jhaniele Fowler, the world’s greatest shooter in one circle, and Shamera Sterling, the world’s best keeper, in the other – and it becomes clear the battle for ownership of the mid-court will be critical. It’s little wonder Mkoloma identifies it as an area of “excitement”.

Critics might identify a glaring imbalance in having eight wing defenders and three wing attackers, but Mkoloma sees 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 match up against their mid-court,” says the former technical director of the New South Wales Swifts. “We do have a lot of mid-court players, which allows us to have a lot of options and that gives us the opportunity to test players. It’s about what our mid-court can do against the Jamaican mid-court.”

Chuck them in to the deep end in the portion of the court where the game will probably be won and lost, and the cream will surely rise. Is it genius? Time will tell. It’s an experiment that will reveal how prepared England are for what lies ahead.

Jamaica’s team are now more well-rounded than those England have faced before. Their ranks boast reinforcements that only further support their star players. The defending end, though missing Jodi-Ann Ward, will have other tried-and-tested Super Netball players Latanya Wilson and Kadie-Ann Dehaney, the latter having won the premiership in Australia with Melbourne Vixens in 2020.

The “test” in this Test series needs no underlining. The last time the two met, in January 2020, Jamaica won 70-66. After London the series moves to Nottingham for the final two matches on 4 and 5 December. “They’re a massive threat,” Mkoloma concedes, and with the Commonwealth title defence looming next year, the netball world will be watching to see how the Roses fare against their oldest rivals.