Coming off the back of a historic Netball World Cup silver medal, there was much anticipation for England to return to home soil.
This came in the form of a three match series against South Africa in Manchester and Nottingham on 5, 9 and 10 December, which England eventually won 2-1.
With the Vitality Roses third in the world rankings and the SPAR Proteas fifth, this was always going to be a tightly fought contest and, with score lines of 54-51, 59-61 and 53-50, it was just that.
The series was a great advert for international netball, with huge crowds totalling almost 20,000 across the series watching on, as all three matches went down to the wire.
Whilst the Roses might have hoped for a 3-0 clean sweep, this series was all about kicking off a new World Cup cycle, with head coach Jess Thirlby having recently extended her contract until 2027.
In contrast, this was the end of an era for South Africa, as their head coach netball legend Norma Plummer retired after the series, having been coaching since the early 1990s.
Turning of the tide
England’s 14-player squad featured only five of the players from the summer’s World Cup – Fran Williams, Eleanor Cardwell, Imogen Allison, Olivia Tchine and Funmi Fadoju, whilst it was a first home international series for Halimat Adio, Jayda Pechova, Berri Neil and Alicia Scholes.
Despite not performing at their best, Thirlby said it was important to not lose sight of the longer term goals around team development and giving the new talent invaluable exposure to big matches.
Series captain Williams said: “This test series has provided so many different challenges but also opportunities for us as a squad.
“I want to get this group learning as much from winning as we can from losing.
“It feels weird being one of the experienced members as I still have so much more to learn – but I am learning from the younger ones too. They play with so much freedom and bravery.”
Thirlby was excited by how the new generation of players are coming through with an abundance of talent and ambition.
She said: “They talk about gold in 2027 every day and it’s not hollow. I believe it and it’s great for the other established players to hear, see and feel as well.
“They are brilliant to have in the group – they’re full of energy, belief and determination and they’ve got a real steeliness about them.
“They don’t bring the hangover of finishing third and fourth. They have only seen the Roses compete well and beat the top teams.
“They want to be part of this turning of the tide.”
Having reached the 2023 World Cup final, the first team other than Australia and New Zealand to do so since 1995, England have cemented their loyal fanbase.
This series was a real homecoming moment after this success and the team couldn’t wait to play in front of their fans.
“We were excited bunnies getting back in front of a home crowd,” said Thirlby.
Williams added: “It’s so special to play a home series in England. Nottingham has been on fire all weekend, it feels like such a party in the arena.
“It was great to come home and celebrate our success with our fans.”
The World Cup players have become household names, and this was evident from the way they were greeted when announced out to the court.
There was a huge cheer for series captain Williams and the roar in the Motorpoint Arena for fan-favourite goal shooter Cardwell made my Apple watch give me a noise warning of ‘loud environment’.
Cardwell is not one to shy away from getting the fans involved, conducting the crowds and calling on them to make more noise throughout.
Cardwell said: “It’s amazing to be back in England playing. The fans are so loud and they bring the energy. If I can add to that energy out there, I do.”
With 7,800 fans in attendance, the series opener at the AO Arena in Manchester on Tuesday 5 December smashed the record attendance for a test series home match.
Nottingham’s matches in the Motorpoint Arena saw around 5,750 each day, making this series the highest-selling home three-match test series.
With fans of all ages and genders in, cheering, booing and chanting, it was clear to see the popularity of netball is on the rise.
The challenge ahead
As South Africa’s head coach Plummer retired, she said she is looking forward to sitting in a box rather than the sideline with a glass of wine in hand at the World Cup in 2027.
On the flipside, for Thirlby, the hard work starts now and there is no let up with the Vitality Netball Nations Cup taking place in January.
What a series 💥— England Netball (@EnglandNetball) December 10, 2023
🏟️ We'll be back on home soil in January 2024 with the Vitality Netball Nations Cup as the Vitality Roses take on Australia, New Zealand and Uganda at the @OVOArena and @fdarena.
Tickets are selling fast, secure your seat today 🎟️ ⬇️
She said: “There’ll be reams of paper in my house over the next few days in terms of my reflections.
“I’ve created the biggest problem for myself which is team selection. Picking a starting line up would be impossible right now, but that’s the problem I came in to create.
“I am really excited about the potential. There’s huge talent but we are not quite there with consistency yet, which we need to be if we want to beat the two best teams.
“We want to be finals ready for January. This group can go all the way – we dream big, we act big, we think big. There is no harm in having limitless belief.”
The Vitality Netball Nations Cup will see England, Australia, New Zealand and Uganda go head-to-head across the weekends of 20-21 (OVO Arena Wembley, London) and 27-28 (First Direct Arena, Leeds) January 2024.