Women's Sport: England's Vitality Nations Cup disappointment and hopes for the future

New Zealand Silver Ferns v Jamaica Sunshine Girls - Vitality Netball Nations Cup 2020

Yesterday, at the Copper Box Arena in London, the inaugural Vitality Nations Cup reached its climactic conclusion and the curtains fell on netball’s international period.

Glory belonged to the Silver Ferns of New Zealand as they fended off an inspired Jamaica to win the Nations Cup trophy. 

In the match prior, England stood resilient against a second-half offensive from South Africa to take the third spot; it was bronze once again for the English Roses.

Reflecting on the tournament, it’s hard somewhere not to feel slightly disappointed with the overall result.

And perhaps somewhere too, Jess Thirlby will be feeling that disappointment. It was, after all, her aim going into this Nations Cup to get England into the final in order to expose her lesser-capped players as much as possible.

Of course, she would not be disappointed for long. Her lesser-capped players: Amy Carter, George Fisher and Eleanor Cardwell impressed. Cardwell, in particular, demonstrated a remarkable composure under pressure from some of the world’s best defenders.

But in the same breath, if a target is not reached then the strategy leading up to it has to be scrutinised. 

With the World Cup, a closed-door tour, a test and the Nations Cup, 27 players have now been exposed to the senior Roses’ red dress. It’s a sizeable figure, particularly given that we are just months into the first year of the infamous ‘four year cycle.’

Also, when you consider that only 12 can be named to a World Cup squad it at once seems remarkable that such a large number should ever have been a priority.

In order to understand the number you have to understand Thirlby’s strategy, and in her own words: ”it all comes down to blend.”

The ‘blend' for Thirlby, is keeping more senior players who accelerate the development of the younger players involved in the set-up whilst simultaneously using the younger players to encourage an upward pressure so that when other players do return they’re aware that a position is not given, but earned.

Thirlby stresses that this ‘blend’ must be achieved in a “constructive and positive way’” but fundamentally, her target is to close the gap between those that went to Liverpool and those that didn’t quite make the cut. 

Vitality Roses v South Africa SPAR Proteas - Vitality Netball Nations Cup 2020

It’s a strategy that makes sense and not least makes the most of the talent emerging in the Vitality Netball Superleague.

But it’s also a strategy that will take time. The "natural attrition" Thirlby anticipates can only be achieved steadily and the risk of such an approach is that the process ends up being one that isn’t all that exciting to watch; that will be tainted with bouts of disappointment.

That’s not to say, of course, that there was a lack of entertainment. In the Nations Cup, we caught glimpses of brilliance and undeniably certain individuals shone but with New Zealand shifting their own strategy away from the ‘four-year-cycle’ vision to a ‘year-on-year’ take, the greater question is: will England’s developmental, long-sighted approach going to be enough to win the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham (and the World Cup a year after that)?

The consistency of class Noeline Taurua’s side displayed throughout the tournament certainly begs the question.

Hope. That is what I believe we are being asked to do. To invest our energy in the variations of Roses that are put before us and enjoy watching individual journeys unfold over time. Ultimately, to believe in the process and to recognise that success comes with learning along the way.

I'm not convinced it will always be pretty, but I hope it will be enough.

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