England sent a massive statement to their rivals ahead of next year’s Commonwealth Games by clinching a series win in New Zealand for the first time with victory in the third and decisive Test in Christchurch.
Jess Thirlby’s side showed both resilience and maturity to overturn a 10-goal deficit at half time - when they were trailing 26-16 - to come roaring back and secure a 49-45 victory to lift the Taini Jamison Trophy.
The high-tempo encounter was the first time an England side had won a series on New Zealand soil in 20 attempts, a landmark achievement as the team builds towards the home defence of their Commonwealth title in Birmingham next summer.
Having lost the first Test 48-42 on Monday - a day after they finished a strict 14-day quarantine - England levelled the series on Wednesday with a composed performance, sealing a convincing 55-45 win.
They followed up that gusty victory with a high-tempo display in the series decider to get one over New Zealand, who ended their World Cup hopes in Liverpool two years ago.
After a high-energy start which saw the teams go toe-to-toe in the first quarter, the Silver Ferns established what looked like an unassailable lead. But a nerveless shooting display from Ellie Cardwell, coupled with on-court acrobatics in a player-of-the-match performance from England captain Serena Guthrie, helped the Roses claw their way back into the match, before dominating the final quarter 17-11.
“It still feels surreal. I’m super happy and proud. The girls have just made a bit of history here, having never won a Taini Jamison Series - it’s been played 20 times - so to finally have our name scratched onto that trophy is huge for this generation of Roses players,” said Thirlby after the match.
Roses reap the rewards of maturing young players
In this exact series last year, England suffered a bruising 3-0 defeat to the Silver Ferns, with Thirlby unable to travel with the team after testing positive for Covid-19. Without several experienced figures from the iconic side that won Commonwealth gold in 2018, a new generation of young talent stepped up. George Fisher, Ellie Cardwell and Imogen Allison have all come of age in this series, providing a real freshness to the group while they cannot relate to the hangover that past England teams have fallen short of at major tournaments. One player who has really stood out is goal-attack Sophie Drakeford-Lewis, who ran the Silver Ferns ragged in the final third in the series decider. “I feel like this generation of Roses are creating their own path really and there’s a belief in the group that I haven’t experienced before with an England team,” said Thirlby, who admitted last year’s series has “played a big part in this year’s success.”
Signs of the England of old
For the first time in her two-year reign as England netball head coach, Thirlby had some big-game players at her disposal as she welcomed back Geva Mentor, Layla Guscoth and Beth Cobden for the first time since England's Commonwealth title - and they looked like they had never been away. Mentor’s towering presence at goalkeeper frustrated the Silver Ferns’ attack, while Guscoth and Cobden presented new combinations in the mid-court. England will have even more squad depth should their series in Australia go ahead next month, when Thirlby will have Helen Housby, Jo Harten, Natalie Haythornthwaite and Stacey Francis-Bayman to add to her arsenal. The quartet have stayed very much connected with the squad in New Zealand, even taking part remotely in squad meetings, in a sign of the close-knit bonds Thirlby has fostered within her camp.
The influence of a new-look coaching team
This historic England win is also reflective of the new coaching set-up that Thirlby has surrounded herself with - which ironically includes former New Zealand international Liana Leota, who still plies her trade in the Superleague for Severn Stars. Alongside former England internationals, Leota has been providing tactical support to Thirlby’s players and even travelled with the squad to New Zealand. “Liana’s insight as an athlete has been so helpful,” said Thirlby. “For her first [England] series to be back in her home country, she’s reinforced and added value. I can hand over the reins and know and trust that Liana knows what she’s on about. I couldn’t speak more highly of the support she’s given me over the series.”