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England 55 Jamaica 45
It was not the serene progress many had anticipated for England prior to this first game of a three-match series against Jamaica, but the scoreline read 55-45 in their favour at the final whistle and the hiccups that had unexpectedly emerged early on were forgotten by the London Copper Box crowd.
Aside from the absent Geva Mentor, this is England’s strongest ever squad, with the core of their Commonwealth Games-winning side bolstered by the addition of multiple exciting youngsters who have developed in recent years.
Yet Jamaica’s unpredictability and maverick style makes them habitually tricky opponents. Although England beat them at the 2018 Commonwealth Games and 2019 World Cup, it has been eight years since their last series win over Jamaica and any suggestion that this would be a trouble-free Sunday afternoon was dispelled almost instantly.
Marshaled by the outstanding Shamera Sterling and Kadie-Ann Dehaney, the Jamaican defence ruined the much-heralded return of England’s Triple H: an attacking trio of Jo Harten, Helen Housby and Natalie Haythornthwaite that had not featured together for England since the 2019 World Cup.
While Jamaica scored all 11 shots they attempted in the opening quarter, Harten and Housby converted just 10 of their 18 efforts - a lowly 56 per cent accuracy wildly unfamiliar to one of the most feared shooting pairs in world netball.
Things were so amiss that Housby was soon hauled off for Ellie Cardwell and did not return. It proved to be the decisive move.
Cardwell - who was awarded player of the match - scarcely missed a beat, sinking almost every shot she attempted and combining with Harten to drag the Jamaican defence this way and that.
With the relentless efforts of Beth Cobden and Layla Guscoth paying dividends at the opposite end of the court, the early concerns for Jess Thirlby’s side soon faded away. Having found themselves 25-26 down at half-time, England were six goals to the good by the end of the third quarter and further stretched that lead the longer the game went on.
“Both Helen and Jo will admit themselves that isn’t what we’ve come to expect of them,” said England head coach Thirlby. “But I think we’ve also just got to allow them some time to recalibrate into the group.
“There’s a big weight of expectation on their shoulders, rightly so because they are household names with a lot of experience. I think it was uncharacteristic to see Helen missing the post a couple of times in that first quarter.
“I think it just lacked a bit of flow; it wasn’t the normal fluent partnership we’ve seen. I’ve got no concerns with either of them being able to put their shots away. I think today it just took a bit too long, and they will be ready come Saturday.”
Having avoided a blip, England will firmly expect to win both remaining matches when the series moves up to Nottingham next weekend.
“We’re way off what we know we’re capable of but to be in a position where you know you haven’t reached anywhere near the potential of the group and still beat a team like Jamaica by 10 is a great place to be,” said Thirlby.
“But we’re definitely going to want a stronger performance next week with a bit more flow.”