Jess Thirlby was announced as England’s head coach shortly after the 2019 Netball World Cup. Although her four year tenure has been interrupted by Covid, Thirlby chats about the road to the Netball World Cup, the disappointment of the last Commonwealth Games, England’s current strengths, and bringing two legends back into the fold.
It’s been a four year build towards the 2023 Netball World Cup. What have been your biggest priorities during that time?
In the early days it was very much strengthening the depth of our talent pool. We’ve been really fortunate over the last decade to have some outstanding individuals, but we knew we were on the tipping point of some of that talent moving on. Underneath that, there was further great talent who hadn’t much exposure to international opposition. Those players have needed to learn, and learn quickly.
We now have a range of experience in this group – the up and coming talent can play with great freedom, and to have them interspersed with our experienced players is exciting.
Four years seems like a long time but it can also go quickly. How did you plan for the period?
Being in a head coach position a lot of your planning works around what should be a robust international calendar, and unfortunately for all of us, Covid hit and put a spanner in the long term planning. So how do we regain that ground?
The Roses need to play the top teams in the world more often, more so than some of the other top nations, and we were able to do that. If we didn’t, we would be behind the curve because some nations like Australia have been brilliant in that, despite the hiatus, they’ve still been able to catch that within their domestic competition. We wouldn’t have been able to survive without putting ourselves out there (internationally).
So in what would normally be a robust four year cycle of planning, we’ve had to go to Plan B and make the most of that situation. It’s made us the group we are, our culture is solid, it’s tightened us, it’s a happy place to be, but equally very challenging. I feel like we have a great group who are hungry to succeed and do their best on behalf of the nation and the sport.
We are on the hunt for the historic moment of making our first ever World Cup final.
What are England’s greatest strengths going into this tournament?
I think our greatest strength is our tactical diversity, because of the people and styles that we have in our team. I do believe it’s a competitive advantage, because some of the other styles of play are very clear, explicit, and relatively homogenous.
For example, Australia and New Zealand have very pure styles, and when they replace players on court it’s fresh and relentless, but quite similar. Whereas what I’m proud of is that I can look down at our bench and believe while we have our own brand of netball, that we can counteract those styles.
I trust that we have a great team of ball winners all the way through the court. Our defensive efforts across the seven is also one of our greatest strengths.
Physically we aren’t a big team – New Zealand will win on that front – and I when I took the job on I knew that for the foreseeable future we were going to be coming up against six foot five shooters, and we weren’t going to find a keeper taller than that again in time for this event. Tall shooters is the way the global game is tracking, so where is that point of difference?
Those eclectic styles and our ability to connect and play together is what I think will serve us best. So we aren’t about relying on one individual superstar, and it doesn’t speak to our depth. So that unitedness and connectedness will play out over the next few weeks I hope.
Any of the top teams can beat each other on their day. We saw that at the Commonwealth Games, when Australia and Jamaica beat each other, and you and New Zealand beat each other. The way it fell out during the finals was that you finished fourth. How did you pick yourselves up from that disappointment?
It’s right for that result to feel hard and brutal. We’d chased exposure and were getting some good results in the previous 18 months, but we didn’t go into that tournament with any unrealistic arrogance. We had just started building some great momentum and belief, so it was really hard.
It should be tough, you should never be okay with coming fourth. There’s no disgrace in losing to teams ranked one and two in the world, but is there disappointment because of the level of belief in this team now? Of course there is, and I would want that to be the case. We’d managed to beat New Zealand by the biggest margin we’d ever beaten them by in a major tournament just 24 hours previously, but we couldn’t do it again.
We went through a great, robust review. You have to be strong enough to use that loss to galvanise your group, to fine tune those areas where you think you can make gains. One of the hardest periods for us was playing Uganda and Australia shortly afterwards but we had to get on with it.
Through Christmas we did a lot of soul searching but also a lot of reflection on where are the areas (for improvement) and where will we pay most attention over the next six months? We’ve been bold in some of the decisions we’ve taken and where we’ve invested.
This team is well resourced, it’s a happy place, but it’s also a challenging one, and we strike a great balance in finding that. We’ve been champing at the bit to get back to a major tournament and see if we can put it right. There is a hunger out there, particularly from our fans, for us to get some success. We are at least chasing a medal here, but we want to go where no Roses team has gone and make our own little bit of history and push ourselves into that final.
As players continue to seek improvement, so do coaches. What have you learned about yourself over the four year cycle?
I’m a pretty deep thinker and I’m very reflective. I’ve seen the value in that, but it’s also important to collaborate and bring people into that space. Leaning into people and experts that can add value to our group, being open to that and really pushing for it on behalf of this team.
I’ve learned the value in my stubbornness to stop at nothing to give everything to a team to try and allow them to reach their potential. The greatest joy a coach can have is when you sit back and take in those moments and watch a group champion themselves for what they have done. My job is to provide the environment for them to feel nurtured and free and have permission to step into spaces that might feel a bit scary at times.
Paying attention to that environment and culture, I’m a big people person and if you get the right people around, you can achieve anything. You can see the people we’ve got involved in the team, the people we’ve held onto because it’s important and the players are thriving off that.
I’ve also learned to pay as much attention to myself as I do for those that I serve. Not just in the learning space but also psychologically being mindful of what I need and making sure that I wrap some support around that.
Also, making sure that I am rehearsing how I need to be able to perform in major tournaments – sport is performance based, and we are not immune to that as coaches.
So I feel very ready and robust and supported. It’s just a great privilege working with this team and that gets me up in the morning.
Many sports invest a lot of time and money in training their elite athletes and discard them after retirement instead of making use of their skills. You’ve taken the opposite approach, and brought Jo Harten and Serena Guthrie almost straight back into the fold. Can you talk through that decision?
It’s long been an outlook of mine, getting the right people, and understanding the skills that they provide as a person and the objective skills from a job perspective. When I came into this job there was going to be a generation of players who would start retiring, and their influence and impact has been obvious both on and away from the court. There are more to some players than their ability to play the game, and we can sometimes be a bit clumsy in sport with one way traffic.
I’ve known Serena and Jo for a long time, so I do have knowledge of how they work in a team, what they’ve impacted on in a team. They can really add value to a programme like ours, and not just in that coaching role.
Serena is more than what she does on court. She has a great way for people to lean and gravitate towards her, she’s really curious and that has served her well because she loves to learn about people and environments, what makes people tick. In her own right she’s done leadership qualifications. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with her in lots of environments and then also see how she uses that capability. How can we harness Serena the person and get those abilities out of her?
So I feel like we’ve done a great job of not losing sight of how we can hold onto her. She’s been brilliant. It’s quite new for this organisation, new for the sport. We started the journey in January, although she isn’t coaching in that sense. She’s here to make a difference alongside the court.
She works really closely with myself and the leadership group. She understands what leading looks like, she’s skilled in that space, she pays attention to the environment and culture, she picks up on things that no one else would, and really shines a lens on any blind spots.
On Jo’s part, how can you not want the magic of Jo Harten in your team? So before anyone else did, I wanted to make sure I afforded her the choice, because it’s been a challenging time for Jo to make that difficult decision that her time in the red dress was coming to an end.
I was fortunate that my planned visit to the SSN coincided with that period for Jo. Mainly I wanted to be there for Jo as it’s been a tricky season for her, but seeing if she wanted to come in was just obvious to me. Asking, ‘What role, Jo, if any, do you feel you could fill with this team?’
We just chewed the fat on that, and she has a way that she sees the game, she is relentless in her competitive nature to outdo any defensive unit and we’ve enjoyed watching that for decades.
There’s also a small window for us to capitalise that they have already been part of this team. That’s why it’s working so well, the risk is little. Because of our strong relationship with the team, we’ve been able to have fun with it, but also take it seriously with clarity of role. It’s working well and I believe strongly they will have a future in the game, hopefully with the Roses and beyond, and it seems right that they keep impacting.
They know this team inside out, they know what makes the players tick and they are doing a great job at knowing the boundaries of where the job starts and stops.
There’s no grey areas, we’ve accepted they’ve hung up the dress but they are still in love with the dress and they’ve done a great job at influencing this space and supporting me as well.
Turning our attention to each section of the court, Eleanor Cardwell and Helen Housby have been in impressive form in Australia. How have you seen Eleanor’s development across the season?
Working with El the last three and half years – she was around prior to that but not necessarily first on the team sheet, and wasn’t a regular in the starting seven. So she put in a lot of work behind the scenes before being able to celebrate that form in the SSN this year.
I think she’s a fantastic character – a hard shell with a soft centre – just a perfect combination to play her role in the shooting circle. She’s now an anchor for us in the goal shooter role, and we’ve also been willing to explore that goal attack role. It makes her doubly valuable, and it wasn’t a given that she’d transition there as well as she has.
She gives us something really different, that physical robustness and that stability really breeds confidence. This is her time and she’s stamped her authority on the game.
We saw Nat Metcalf look tired towards the end of the Commonwealth Games. She’s been selected in your team as a goal attack who will slide into wing attack, so how will you use Nat, but still give her enough rest to be fresh at the end of the tournament?
Nat is more than capable of playing a very clever and smart goal attack. She’s not afraid to put the shots up, and there can be a misconception around wing attacks that slide over, that they will avoid that. Nat loves it and never shies away from the shot. We also then benefit from her excellent feeding ability and in closer proximity to our shooters. That cleverness with her quick ball speed and hands.
You may not have seen as much of that internationally over the past few years while we’ve been trying to grow goal attacks and goal shooters, but when it came down to selection, she got enough court time during our domestic season to feel confident sliding between the two. Her role there at Thunder has been like that.
The selection then comes to, where can we best fill that twelve, and how can we make sure we have great positional coverage and depth? We don’t want to have just one wing attack of a certain style. Nat’s is pretty well known now internationally, and we know that everyone in that top group will know her inside out. It’s being able to grow her game, give us a different option inside the circle, ball speed, speed of movement, but then be able to introduce someone like Chelsea who is a very different wing attack style who will match up better against some nations.
So it’s about celebrating Nat’s ability at wing attack and on occasion goal attack, in front of a Helen or Liv or El. It’s quite an exciting prospect to know that we can proactively switch up our styles. Not because Nat necessarily needs rest, but acknowledging form and clear match ups with certain nations’ styles. We are well armed for that.
You’ve lacked Serena Guthrie’s fire in the midcourt since her retirement. For Laura Malcolm to play centre in New Zealand this year, and also learn more about moving the ball through a zone defence, couldn’t have been better timed.
Credit to Laura, she has had a solid season with Tactix. Laura’s not a young athlete so making that move at this stage of her career, both her and El have been smart with the timing of it. For Laura to get minute on minute, quarter on quarter, game on game, in that middle is great for us, because she’s played amongst and against that New Zealand style.
There’s no better position to learn her trade than breaking through that off mark and zonal defence than being in the middle of the court. She’s come back with an abundance of knowledge, and she’s really sharing that with the group.
In January Laura was returning from a small niggle, so she wasn’t fully fit in that Quad Series, and we also needed to see other things in that series and against Jamaica. So her time in New Zealand has helped accelerate her back to where she is physically at her best. Since she’s back in camp there’s been some marked differences, partly in terms of match fitness, but defensively challenging, her repeated efforts are brilliant, she’s coming out with more ball in hand whereas she has previously sometimes been the servant to setting other players up.
I believe her attacking ability, the reading of the spaces, her confidence in feeding the circle, just grew game on game, from both off and on the circle, and it’s translated quite quickly into feeding targets like Liv (Tchine) and El (Cardwell).
She’s also been firing at wing defence, she’s buzzing and has great energy.
Your defensive end is versatile, and you also have the option of two ball hunters, in Layla Gusgoth and Funmi Fadoju, playing across the transverse line at wing defence.
These four are fascinating to watch interact, and never before have I worked with such a diverse defensive unit who are also so well connected. Most of our attention has been on the back four (recently), and they have a real clarity of role when they are in certain partnerships. They are so brilliant at working through the information and arriving at some clear actions.
(Assistant coach) Sonia Mkoloma has done some great work. She has a long standing knowledge of Geva and has really got under the skin of knowing how she works, and when to introduce Funmi into that mix over the past year. Fran is like the glue in that group, very similar to Laura, a real student of the game, maximises her potential every session, understands structures really well, and Layla is just leading that four. The way in which they get the best out of each other, championing the two out there on court, but knowing that we are most likely to be rolling those two on and off.
In particular Layla has grabbed the wing defence bib again. We have been plagued with ins and outs and availability in our defenders in this cycle, so at the moment I feel like we have more ammunition and something different in that wing d to strengthen our midcourt group as well.