Coverage of the Vitality Netball Superleague on Sky Sports continues on Sunday with Round Nine and four back-to-back matches streamed on the Sky Sports YouTube channel from 12pm
By Emma Thurston
Last Updated: 02/04/21 8:39pm
During every contest of the Vitality Netball Superleague season, the Sky Sports cameras have caught a glimpse of a studious individual taking notes courtside. That individual is Jess Thirlby, England’s head coach; she’s not missed a match and is loving Superleague’s ‘one-stop shop’.
This season, with Studio 001 in Wakefield and the Copper Box Arena in London being the competition’s two centralised venues for the duration, it means Thirlby can occupy the best seat in both houses throughout the 20-round competition. Then, she will be able to enjoy the high-pressure semi-finals before the 2021 Grand Final on June 27.
With a three-and-a-half hour drive to Wakefield for every round during the first half of the season, Thirlby is using her time on the road productively; podcasts are keeping her company and the musings of individuals like England Rugby’s head coach Eddie Jones or Leeds Rhinos’ director of rugby, Kevin Sinfield are giving her food for thought.
Then when she gets courtside, Thirlby needs just two other things, as she explained.
“Despite iPads and all of these new bits of technology, I’ll never leave my notebook and pen behind, they’re my go-to,” the head coach said with a smile to Sky Sports.
From the moment she was first shown on screen, social media has been ablaze with musings as to what might be written down in Thirlby’s notebook?
After her recent appearance on Sky Sports’ Off The Court, one of the first questions was whether or not she spoke about her notes?! As you can imagine, Thirlby is keeping her cards close to her chest on that one!
Having a centralized venue is brilliant from my perspective as it’s a one-stop shop for me to get the most information and follow each individual’s journey.
“Whether it’s players that are known to us already through the Roses programmes or emerging talents coming through, seeing them hit-out against a team lower in the table, and then two days later playing against one of the top teams, is great for me.
“It allows me to see if someone has a ceiling, or if they pleasantly surprise me too and they show me something different.
“With the tight turnaround time between matches, whilst I appreciate it’s hugely challenging for all involved, it’s fascinating to see games in quick succession. It means I can see which players are mature enough to respond effectively against different styles of opposition in a short time period.”
With every match of the season being live on Sky Sports’ platforms, netball has greater visibility than ever before and Thirlby smiles as she talks about the feedback that she’s getting, which is another sign of netball’s ever-growing profile.
“I get tweets most weeks saying that surely you’re going to include this player or that one in the Roses programme,” she said. “I get reminded all the time about the number of good news stories across the game [too].
What’s great is that I’ve seen it all. I’ve got a good grip as to what’s happening and how it’s playing out.
“From a Friday to a Monday you can really get the sense of flow when it comes to the teams, how the league is sitting and where the challenges are coming.
“We’re getting more of an insight into the players and also into the coaches, and all are driving and showcasing, even more, the character of the league.”
Right now, Thirlby is keen to strike the balance of keeping in contact with her England Vitality Roses, while giving them space to knuckle down and work hard for their respective Superleague teams.
In January, the Vitality Legends Series saw a group come together and continue to press forwards with their preparations for Birmingham 2022. The series made it crystal clear that Thirlby’s Roses have not lost a huge amount of time or momentum due to COVID-19.
“These last 12 months could have so easily have gone in the ‘too hard’ category,” Thirlby said, about keeping the national programme moving the pandemic.
“That’s the complete opposite to my character if I’m honest. I remained focused on us needing to play the best teams in the world [safely], as many times as we can. So, my thinking was always about how we could do that and how we could make that happen for the players.”
A tour to New Zealand at the end of 2020 marked the first international netball matches in the world since the global pandemic had struck, and it was a series that added greatly to individuals’ development.
Sophie Drakeford-Lewis had an outstanding Test series against Jane Watson and Sulu Fitzpatrick, while Thirlby herself said on the recent episode of Sky Sports’ Off The Court, that the second Test was when Laura Malcolm really ‘showcased’ what she could do as a WA.
After watching New Zealand and Australia duel against each other more recently in the Constellation Cup series and seeing the quality of England’s players in the Superleague, the head coach believes they are in a good place.
“We have got a really competitive environment; we have got competition for places and upward pressure on those who have been in the system for a while; that’s everything that we need if we are going to be successful as a team.
“If you were to ask me for a squad of 12 today, it’s really quite tough to know who that would be. We are in a great position where we have probably got 23/24 Roses players who could push and make a 12-player squad for the Commonwealth Games.
“I think, in all honesty, it’s the first time in a long time that we’ve had that level of competitiveness. It’s come off the back of some really exceptional planning and persistence over the last 12 months, for us to still get exposure to international netball.”
At this point, fans of England across the world will have a couple of names in their minds, players who have not been seen on the world stage since Liverpool. Thirlby, well she has a few reassuring messages to deliver on that front.
“The names that I know people are really keen to see, Geva (Mentor) and Jo (Harten) – also we had Helen (Housby) back in January – they’re all in great spirits,” she said.
“They know that the Commonwealth Games is around the corner and those players’ desire and passion to want to pull on the Red Dress again is absolutely still there.
“Personally, I’m really looking forward to the pressures of the next 12 months. I think it’s exactly the environment that a head coach should thrive in [having big selection decisions to make].
“The journey so far has put us in the best position and as I say, I’m really looking forward to narrowing down selection and getting even more focused over the next year.”
Right now, the team at England Netball are working hard behind the scenes to create a competition calendar that ensures that the Roses are “flying” by the time they step onto a home court at Birmingham 2022.
Then, when it comes to that home Commonwealth Games, the Roses’ ambition remain greater than ever.
“We want sustainable wins year-on-year now, we don’t want that Commonwealth Games gold in 2018 to be a one-off in the history of England Netball,” Thirlby concluded. “We want to look to win back to back and look to keep on doing it.”
Sky Sports is your home of netball. The Vitality Netball Superleague continues on Sunday with Round Eight and four matches back to back, streamed live on the Sky Sports YouTube channel from 12pm.