England netball are building their squad depth with every passing game according to head coach Jess Thirlby, as the Vitality Roses sealed victory in the Legends Series with a 67-44 win over the Vitality Superleague All Stars.
Having triumphed 70-54 in Wednesday’s first Test, the Roses took an unassailable 2-0 lead in the three-match series, ensuring they will leave with the Jean Hornsby Cup, thanks to another ruthless display in Loughborough.
The All Stars - a team assembled at short notice from the best of the Superleague's imports - once again proved a tough nut to crack as the hosts only led 34-27 at half-time but the England defence stiffened remarkably after the interval, allowing just nine goals in the third quarter and eight in the fourth to run out comfortable winners.
Young guns such as Razia Quashie, Imogen Allison and Sophie Drakeford-Lewis dovetailed effectively with proven, world-class operators like Serena Guthrie, Helen Housby and Nat Haythornthwaite to leave coach Thirlby ecstatic with the progress.
“One of key things to fix from Game 1 was our attacking play,” she explained. “It was brilliant that the All Stars started with the same line-up because we really wanted to address how we started Game 1 and we were much smarter with the ball here in attack.
“We grew into the game defensively – the ball was hard to come by first half and the All Stars played a good possession game.
“Generally, we’re really pleased. The line-ups and combinations we were able to test, some of which we hadn’t seen before, were really pleasing. Helen [Housby] and So [Drakeford-Lewis] finished well.
“We’re getting closer to having the world-class 12 that I want. If anyone can guess our starting 7 at the moment, they must be closer to it than us!
“The margins are close and you saw Imogen Allison making her mark. We’re not there just yet but we’re getting there – we’ve got players on the bench that you know and trust. They can come on and make an impact, which is a great place to be.”
Despite the tight first half, the Roses eventually recorded a 23-goal triumph, as youngster Drakeford-Lewis came off the bench to form a potent attacking trio alongside heroes from that memorable 2018 Commonwealth Games gold medal, Housby and Haythornthwaite.
Haythornthwaite was named Player of the Match for her tireless all-round display and when they return to the Sir David Wallace Arena on Sunday for the final game of the series, England will be confident of wrapping up a clean sweep.
“I think that Nat [Haythornthwaite] is always pretty consistent and while we were making some changes around her, I think it's important to give some stability to the attack,” added Thirlby.
“Laura [Malcolm] has had quite a lot of outings in the wing-attack role, so we were able to give her a little longer in the middle [at centre]. It just afforded Nat the ability to run with a couple of different shooting combinations. I'm always impressed with Nat's intent.
“We’re definitely looking for 3-0 now. We need to show growth game by game. We need to be smarter – you can be matched physically against any team, so it’s about having an intelligent team that know how to tactically outplay their opposition.”