The rivalry between England and Jamaica is one that has developed intensely – across the last two decades in particular.
Historically fighting for the bronze medal (at four Commonwealth Games and five Netball World Cups), both nations have taken great strides in recent years to develop talent pathways and have proven that they are genuine gold medal contenders. With both nations looking to build heading into the Netball World Cup in Cape Town later this year, the recent Test Series was set to be hotly contested.
Hosted in England, the Sunshine Girls were without key defenders Shamera Sterling and Latanya Wilson, yet this simply allowed the opportunity to display the depth they have in the defensive end, with Jodi-Ann Ward and Kadie-Ann Dehaney making their case for the starting defensive bibs.
England were without Eleanor Cardwell, who played a pivotal role in their 2022 Birmingham Commonwealth Games campaign. Both teams had also taken the opportunity to give some of their up-and-coming talent exposure to the international stage, with Olivia Tchine and Funmi Fadoju providing match-winning performances for England and Crystal Plummer and Abigail Sutherland lighting up the midcourt for Jamaica.
With much on the line with regards to World Cup preparations, and England getting ready to head to the 2023 Quad Series later this week, the series was played with a finals atmosphere and was an impressive showcase for the standard of world netball.
Test 1 – England 73 def Jamaica 52
(13-19, 31-34, 49-47, 73-52)
The first Test was certainly a tale of two halves at the AO Arena in Manchester, as the England Roses struggled to get out of the blocks, yet dominated the third quarter to take a 21-goal victory.
The familiar combination of Harten and Housby lit up the Roses attack and looked their most comfortable together in a number of years. Youngsters Alice Harvey and Funmi Fadoju led the way in defence for the Roses, with Layla Guscoth swinging out to wing defence to break up the Sunshine attack. Fitness proved to be a key issue for Jamaica as head coach Connie Francis acknowledged post match.
“They [The Roses] are ahead of us when it comes to fitness. I thought that when we were ahead they became more persistent, especially when they go to that full defensive lineup.”
With 66 penalties to 38, the Sunshine Girls struggled to adjust to the umpire’s whistle and gave away too many free passes and uncontested shots against the World Number three. A comprehensive victory for the Roses, but the real challenge was going to be backing up this performance only a few days later as the Series moved to London.
Harten 37/39 (95%)
Tchine 6/6 (100%)
Feeds: 70 (Metcalf 24)
Penalties: 38 (Guscoth 12)
Intercepts: 9 (Fadoju 3)
Deflections: 16 (Fadoju 6)
Fowler 48/51 (94%)
Beckford 4/7 (57%)
Feeds: 50 (Williams 20)
Penalties: 66 (Plummer 20)
Intercepts: 6 (Dehaney & Ward 2)
Deflections: 10 (Dehaney 3)
Test 2 – Jamaican 61 def England 58
(18-12, 27-31, 48-41, 61-58)
There was a different energy on court as the Sunshine Girls sought redemption in the second Test. Captain Jhaniele Fowler demanded more from her attack from the get go. Despite a strong first quarter from the Roses, to lead by six after fifteen minutes, Jamaica were able to find another gear to push England all the way.
The defensive lineup of Dehaney, Ward and Plummer caused havoc for Housby and Tchine, who found herself thrust into the starting lineup after injury ruled out Jo Harten. A monster second quarter from Jamaica, putting on 19 goals to 9, saw them secure a lead that England found impossible to peg back. Commanding under the post, Fowler provided a strong target and was steadfast in her positioning in the circle.
England suffered a number of injuries throughout the match, with defender Layla Guscoth forced off court a number of times through a knock to the head and Housby suffering a nasty knock to the knee that kept her off court for the majority of the second half.
Yet Jamaica did not slow down and used the breaks in England’s momentum to their advantage. Head coach Connie Francis played a rotational midcourt, with Nicole Dixon-Rochester and youngster Abigail Sutherland sharing the centre bib, allowing the Sunshine Girls to maintain relentless through court pressure and speed in attack. Given a 24-goal swing from the first test, it was a hugely impressive performance from the Sunshine Girls, who did not make the same mistakes twice.
Tchine 44/47 (94)
Housby 7/7 (100%)
Drakeford-Lewis 7/7 (100%)
Feeds: 52 (Allison & Drakeford-Lewis 11)
Penalties: 97 (Fadoju 32)
Deflections: 15 (Fadoju 5)
Fowler 56/56 (100%)
Beckford 5/7 (71%)
Feeds: 54 (Beckford 17)
Penalties: 65 (Plummer 16)
Intercepts: 7 (Ward 3)
Deflections: 15 (Dehaney 8)
Test 3 – England 63 def Jamaica 59
(20-16, 30-31, 48-44, 63-59)
There was a visible step up in intensity in the final and deciding Test.
For Jamaica, it was an unchanged starting seven as coach Connie Francis sought some consistency from her team. Her England counterpart in Jess Thirlby chose the final match as the moment to inject some experience into her defensive line, which had a considerable impact from the first whistle. Geva Mentor matched up against Jhaniele Fowler – two of the sport’s most experienced stars – in what was one another iconic clash.
England’s defensive strategy was clear, with Mentor forcing Fowler high in the circle, allowing Fadoju to hunt the front ball, which won them a number of turnovers in the first half. Despite Fowler taking to the bench in the middle of the match, Shimona Nelson relished her first minutes on court for the series and proved to be a very worthy replacement in her time on court, slotting 14 goals at 100%.
In a Player of the Match performance, England captain Natalie Metcalf reclaimed the wing attack bib and dominated the centre pass setup and feeds into the circle. Her combination with Helen Housby, who herself had a strong game at goal attack shooting 95%, caused the Jamaican defence a number of headaches. So much so, that wing defence Crystal Plummer was sent from the court for a two minute suspension after a number of words from the umpires. Whilst this would be a huge blow to the youngsters confidence, it certainly should not dampen what was a breakout series for the young defender, who picked up six intercepts and seven deflections across the series.
In the end, the Sunshine Girls struggled to contain England’s attacking prowess and gave away just too much ball, with fifteen unforced errors compared with England’s four. It was a win that thrilled Metcalf, who said after the match.
“We want to be able to play in those deciders, obviously we would have loved to have won the first two games, but for us that’s good practice for a final, winner takes all type of vibe. That was good to be able to practice those moments, execute the game plan and be able to take the win.”
Tchine 42/44 (95%)
Housby 21/22 (95%)
Feeds: 55 (Metcalf 20)
Penalties: 74 (Mentor 28)
Intercepts: 5 (Allison & Mentor 5)
Rebounds: 1 (Tchine)
Deflections: 16 (Fadoju & Mentor 6)
Fowler 37/38 (97%)
Nelson 14/14 (100%)
Beckford 8/10 (80%)
Feeds: 49 (Sutherland 16)
Penalties: 58 (Dehaney 19)
Intercepts: 10 (Dehaney 4)
Deflections: 12 (Ward 4)
England’s Layla Guscoth was awarded Player of the Series, after playing a vital role in defence in each match.
Whilst we may be used to seeing Guscoth dominate in the goal circle, Thirlby chose to utilise her versatility and play her out at wing defence for the most part, which came as a pleasant surprise to those who had not yet seen her dominate out in front of the circle defenders.
Picking up two intercepts and seven deflections, it was Guscoth’s intense hands-over pressure which broke down the Jamaican attack line and created a number of turnover opportunities.
England’s Elle McDonald made her international debut in the last Test – less than twelve months after being named in the setup for the first time. For McDonald, returning to her birth country of England and being able to represent them was an momentous experience.
“It’s just so special. I said earlier in the changing rooms how much it meant to me just to be amongst these players and it was just an amazing experience and when we look at ourselves as Vitality Roses, we just think of the passion that we have for each other and that real true sense of pride… I tried to absorb that as much as I could but also make sure I was on court to do my job and just play my role.”
England coach Jess Thirlby acknowledged how important these three weeks (series v Jamaica and the upcoming Quad Series) were in terms of the longer term preparation for World Cup.
“It’s a great opportunity for us to not only always have the intent to win matches, but to make sure we finish them finding out a little more about individuals that we either have not seen much about before, or people in positions and reconnecting combinations with the intent to try and get the result as well.
We’ve uncovered some new talent recently, so to be able to ask both Alice and Funmi to not only impact the game, but to front it as starting players tells me there is a robustness in our youngsters that is ready to go. Positionally, we have seen great leadership this week. We have worked really hard over the last couple of months on the areas we feel will make the biggest difference out on court. One of the biggest things is our ability to manage games better…the reality is at a World Cup it’s going to be very rare that margins are retrievable or that we are going to get out to those ourselves, so I think this has been great for our learning around that.
We are really fortunate that we are one of the only teams that will have played both Jamaica and those at Quad. Thereafter, its going to be around how we capture the learnings quickly from January and how we stay connected as a group across the world. We have plans and strategies around that. I’m spoiled because the girls are playing against internationals and matching up one on one. I’ll go over to Australia and spend some time over there, making sure we spend some time strengthening the relationships with the clubs.”
CURTAIN RAISER – TEST 3
England Thorns 64 def England Futures 42
It was a fast-paced and dynamic clash between the England Futures and the England Thorns to open the final Test.
Both teams took the opportunity to play on the big stage and grasped it with both hands. There was plenty of rotation from both squads and a number of combinations take the court.
Whilst the scoreline would indicate it was a fairly straightforward contest for the Thorns, the Futures squad put up a fight and certainly did not make it easy.
The rotation in defence of Millie Sanders, Ella Bowen, Annabel Roddy and Jayda Pechova enabled the Futures to match the ferocious pace of the Thorns attack. Pechova won a number of turnovers with strong positioning under the post and impressive quick hands and reading of the play. In attack, Berri Neil certainly looked to have stepped up her game from what we saw on court for London Pulse last season and used explosive timing to present for the ball and had the accuracy to match.
Yet the immense ball speed and superior physical strength from the Thorns saw them take the victory. Luke Owen stood out in the goal attack position, partnering with a number of different shooters and providing a reliable shot. Ky Lewis transitioned seamlessly from goal keeper to goal shooter, and made an impact at both ends of the court.