England, the defending champions, signed off a strong 66-41 victory over Malawi in the second group game of their Commonwealth campaign on Saturday.
The head coach, Jess Thirlby, took full advantage of the opposition’s grit to test her players, once more running out all 12 of her squad to deliver an important win in front of a sold-out NEC Arena.
With two world-class shooters in their attacking end in Joyce Mvula and Australia-based Mwai Kumwenda, and the scalp of New Zealand from Gold Coast 2018, the Malawi Queens were always penned as a threat to the Roses looking to go back-to-back. But from the first whistle to the last England looked mostly comfortable as they got to task defeating the world No 7 side.
Though the opening phases were punctuated by physical clashes as the sides tested each other’s resolve under the post, it was the Roses who took the early initiative.
Goal attack Eleanor Cardwell, whose impressive impact on Friday from the bench saw her awarded with a start, was clinical in the shooting end as 34-year-old wing defence and local Birmingham product Stacey Francis-Bayman was quick to reap the rewards of her defending unit. Their combined effort allowed England to produce a 35-20 lead at half-time.
Those that had called the game to be closer were subsequently vindicated at the start of the second half. Errant elbows and umpire whistles defined a third term where the Malawi Queens surged. Growing into the occasion, they became increasingly disruptive in their quest to try and recover the scoreline. The eight interceptions, three deflections and three unforced errors they drew out of England meant they held the hosts to a quarter-score draw at the conclusion of the 15.
Showing no sign of panic, Thirlby opted to continue making changes, seizing the opportunity to use all of her players with a mind on the challenges that await her team. Those that came on, and in some cases returned to court, in the game’s concluding 15, more than reasserted England’s authority.
Assisting the Roses in taking the final quarter 18-8 was goal defender Layla Guscoth. The qualified doctor finished with five gains, two interceptions and four deflections in her 45 minutes of court-time, fuelling talk the 30-year-old is the world’s best in the position.
“It was a good test,” Thirlby said. “It was definitely what we needed; practicing being asked questions along the way in order to ready yourself for games deeper in the tournament.
“That third quarter isn’t good enough. We recognised what they were doing well against us, but we were too slow to choose the best course of action to stop it in its tracks. To a degree some of that can be expected but we’re not accepting of it. So we’ll look to try and rectify some of that for next week. But the first half overall we should be pretty pleased.”
Centre Laura Malcolm, who finished on 15 feeds, echoed her coach’s approval with the result: “We’re really happy with it. It was definitely a lift on yesterday. There’s still a lot to work on so we’re still on our journey of trying to get to where we want to get to, but as long as we keep improving we’ll get to where we’ll want to be.
England’s Roses will return to court on Monday to face Northern Ireland. Following the home nation’s 79-20 loss to New Zealand the Roses can expect an easier ride. Australia, who are out to avenge their loss on home soil four years ago, are also sitting two from two after thumping Barbados 95-19 and defeating Scotland 83-80.