'We will not lower our standards' – England looking to upset New Zealand despite seven months without netball

Ben Bloom
·3-min read
A general view of the match action between England and New Zealand during the Netball World Cup match at the M&S Bank Arena - PA
A general view of the match action between England and New Zealand during the Netball World Cup match at the M&S Bank Arena - PA

Jess Thirlby is adamant she is sending her England players out to win in the upcoming three-match series against world champions New Zealand, despite admitting her side are underdogs, with none of the squad having played a competitive netball match for more than seven months.

England last played in January’s Nations Cup, while the domestic Superleague was abandoned in early March. Most Superleague clubs are yet to resume training, with only those players on England’s core central programme returning to camps in August.

Having won last year’s World Cup and the four-team Nations Cup in January, New Zealand’s players were able to take part in a full domestic ANZ Premiership season in the summer, with the pandemic largely under control in the country.

Head coach Thirlby is taking charge of the tour virtually from her home near Bath having tested positive for coronavirus - but remained asymptomatic throughout - days before the squad’s departure from England in early October. She says she does not intend to lower her standards, despite acknowledging the disparity between the two teams’ build-up in the first international netball match since the pandemic began.

“Do I except players to perform perfectly? Absolutely not,” she told Telegraph Sport. “The backdrop in England and our journey to get here is unique.

“You’re taking on the world champions on their home soil, off the back of not playing a game since March. But as long as I can take assurances that my team is physically ready - which they are - why wouldn’t we take this opportunity of being one of two teams getting some international exposure?

“We’re an international team so we should always have the intent to go out and compete to win. But we have to be realistic. We’re under no illusions that we go into this as underdogs from a performance point of view. New Zealand are very much the favourites. You expect them to be sharper, match-fit and match-ready. But we have absolutely nothing to lose.

“Our standards aren’t lowered because of the context that we enter New Zealand right now. For us it’s about how close we can get to our performance targets as opposed to lowering them and accepting mediocrity. Is it all about the outcome? No. But we don’t take that off the list.”

While Thirlby must do without England’s Australia-based players, whose season only finished this month, she welcomes back captain Serena Guthrie, who took a year’s break following last summer’s World Cup.

Guthrie will resume her role alongside co-captain Laura Malcolm, and she echoed Thirlby’s rallying call to try and cause an upset in New Zealand.

“My last game was July 2019, but it’s not about what you haven’t done, it’s about what you’re doing now,” she said. “That’s where our focus has to remain.

“While we know it will be a challenging series, we are here to try and take games. We’ve got a lot of grit, determination and motivation. We’ve got nothing to lose and we don’t know when our next opportunity is going to come.

“We’re under no illusions it will be tough. These guys have had a pretty smooth run in terms of their netball season. There’s a bit of envy from our point because we would have loved to play out our season but we are where we are.”