Jess Thirlby was thrilled to see her charges "play smarter" to topple South Africa in the second half of their Vitality Netball Nations Cup Clash as they wrapped up a 58-54 triumph, writes Joe Leavey.
Thirlby’s side had trailed for much of the opening 30 minutes in a sold-out Arena Birmingham, going into the half-time break trailing by a single goal, but a resurgent third quarter saw them turn things round and stay in the hunt for a spot in the final of the round-robin tournament.
And the head coach believes that, while there is still much to work on for her new-look side, Wednesday’s display may well lay the foundations for what is to come.
"At half-time, there was a real response to play smarter, not just harder,” she said.
“There was a lot of heart and we needed a bit more head in the second half, and I think we gave that.
“I know the capacity of this group right now. We talk about the long-term plan, but I know that they’re better than that first-half performance and I just wanted them to show everyone else that.
“We tried a different line-up and to be fair to George (Fisher) and El (Cardwell), they’ve never started an international match that way around; they’ve very rarely played together, so it was likely that it was going to run its course and I felt we lost our way a little before half-time, but the impact of those that came off the bench, I couldn’t be more pleased.”
Thirlby opted to switch things up in favour of a young team in Birmingham, George Fisher and Eleanor Cardwell both handed starting berths after the pair impressed in tandem during England’s defeat to New Zealand.
And early exchanges were predictably tight, the lead switching hands regularly as offences dominated what was shaping up as a goal-to-goal match.
South Africa, their transition play fluid, were first to open up a slight lead, taking a 16-13 lead at the culmination of the first quarter.
Amy Carter – who made her debut against New Zealand – was introduced for the second, as the Proteas stretched their led to four.
But impressive persistence from England forced a series of turnovers and with patience on the ball, Thirlby’s side wrenched themselves back to within one.
And that was to be how it would stay at the half-way stage, with South Africa squeaking it 26-25.
— England Netball 🌹 (@EnglandNetball) January 23, 2020
The hosts picked up from where they left off after the break, as they took the lead for the first time since early in the first quarter, building a four-point advantage to stamp their authority on the contest.
And they did just that, putting themselves in the driving seat, entering the last quarter with a 42-37 advantage.
Composure seemed to elude both sides as a series of misplaced passes and turnovers broke up the flow, with South Africa looking to stage a late comeback.
Razia Quashie was brought on to help sure things up at goal keeper, helping the Roses to do just enough to wrap things up and put themselves in pole position for a place in Saturday’s final.
And with a match against Jamaica to navigate if they are to book a place in the showpiece at London’s Copper Box, Thirlby believes that the Roses have what it takes to deliver.
“I said coming into the tournament that, ideally, we want to get into these finals,” she said.
“We have every opportunity to do so, it’s going to be tough with that height in the back, but South Africa pushed them the other day.
“Everyone was a bit critical of us against New Zealand, but you saw the margin between New Zealand and Jamaica today, so I think it’s game on.
“We know what we have to do; we know we have to win ball and pressure it early; and we’ve got to be much more clinical in possession of the ball, keep minimising those errors.”