22 Sep 2023

Netball: England Roses unfazed by B-team tag

2:46 pm on 22 September 2023
Liana Leota after winning semi final over England at the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games.

Liana Leota after beating England early in her career Photo: PHOTOSPORT

When Liana Leota was starting her Silver Ferns career 15 year's ago there's no way England would have sent a development squad to New Zealand.

But times have changed and that was evident at last month's Netball World Cup, where Leota was a technical coach for the England Roses.

The Roses came away with a silver medal, their best ever finish at the pinnacle event.

"Everyone thought that we weren't going to do really well so we went under the radar and just went about our work and then to come up and beat Aussie in our pool play and then beat the Silver Ferns in the semi final was a sense of accomplishment, relief at the same time," Leota said.

The former Silver Fern has stepped in to temporarily lead the side as head coach for the three test Taini Jamison series against her old side, starting this Sunday.

After taking a week off following the World Cup, Leota got straight back into camp with a new look side, which prompted an angry reaction from many New Zealand fans when no players from the World Cup were named.

Leota has had five weeks preparing the inexperienced Roses for the series against the Silver Ferns.

"The girls had actually been in camp three weeks before that, so we had been putting them through a real physical block. We knew what New Zealand was going to bring so we needed to get them up to speed and make sure they can compete with the demands of the game and the style that New Zealand play."

Leota debuted for the Silver Ferns in 2008 when New Zealand expected to the beat the Roses every time they met them.

"That's how it was, I think we would win by 20 or more but the tide has changed. Netball is exciting at the moment because there's so many different nations competing for those top seven, top eight positions.

"You look at the World Cup and everyone thought Jamaica was going to come through, Uganda beat South Africa, we beat New Zealand. It's exciting for our sport because it needs to grow and I think it makes it more of a spectacle and gets more engagement."

Leota said it had been good for the Roses programme to have England players compete in the Australian league (SSN) and provided them with intel they would not get otherwise.

England's Sophie Drakeford-Lewis and Silver Ferns Jane Watson. Final match, Cadbury Netball Series Taini Jamison Trophy, NZ Silver Ferns v England Roses, Claudelands Arena, Hamilton, New Zealand. 01 November 2020.

Photo: Photosport Ltd 2020

"Because our top players are training with and playing against the best Australian and Jamaica players day after day they learn all the intricacies of how they move, what their preferences are.

"So when we come into pressure situations, that pressure isn't there because it's like 'oh this is just another SSN game' so then our athletes are able to play with freedom and confidence because it happens every other week and they know the intensity you have to train at in order to be the best."

And while the England Roses might not expect to beat the Silver Ferns with the team they've named, they feel they can compete.

"It gives us an opportunity to give experience to the girls that we have and there's some of them that are so exciting. I think people are going to be wowed by a couple of them that have just been sitting behind those Roses girls, that will become regulars on the world stage."

Leota has been the team's technical coach for a couple of years now.

She moved to Manchester in 2011 with her husband Johnny, who took up a contract with Premiership Rugby club the Sale Sharks, and the pair have made it their home.

Roses head coach Jess Thirlby will still be in New Zealand for the series.

"She's just here observing and supporting because for most of us this is a new role so for her just to give us that guidance and support when needed. But also she has full trust in us ...she backs me 100 percent so that's really nice to hear."

Leota said they had to keep the bigger picture in mind and it was important to give players and coaches a break as the sport became more demanding.

"For us we're just taking this as an opportunity. These are the best available players we have for the Roses. Yes it may be different to the World Cup team but I think people don't take into consideration that when you're striving for excellence, when you've been part of a programme it does take its toll.

"We're at the start of another cycle so for us to be able to give some of our girls an extra week off I think they deserve it because we've got a big four year cycle so for us to allow them that rest and recovery so that they stay in our programme, that's all we can do."

Of the seven players about to represent England for the first time, the most anticipated debut will be that of Australian based player Sasha Glasgow.

The GA/GS had also been in Diamonds contention, but is eligible for the Roses through her English heritage.

The 25-year-old year old is one of the most promising shooters in Australia's Super Netball league (SSN).

"She's young, exciting, calm, tenacious and she's been leading on court, just a real natural, and will take that leadership role on. Just her confidence to turn to post we haven't seen that in a long time apart from Jo Harten and Elle Cardwell. It gives everyone around her confidence."

Leota believes Glasgow and Sophie Drakeford-Lewis, who went to the World Cup as a travelling reserve, will form a lethal combination, once they refine their connections.

England celebrates winning the Cadbury Netball Series/Taini Jamison Trophy, 2021

The Roses won the Taini Jamison series in 2021 Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Drakeford-Lewis has 23 test caps and played in the Taini Jamison series in New Zealand in 2020 and 2021.

She said the players were fresh and excited for the challenge.

"We've been working really hard and we can't really wait to get out there and give it all we've got against the Silver Ferns being number two in the World but I'm sure they are as well chomping at the bit to put out some really good performances off the back of the world cup so it's going to be a really exciting series," Drakeford-Lewis said.

"There's been a really good physical block and now we're really getting into the nitty gritty netball stuff, which a lot of the girls have been very happy about, we've been working really really hard in preparation for this opportunity we've got."

She said Leota was able to give the players great insight.

"She's so incredibly knowledgeable about not only the game but also the Silver Ferns style, which is really valuable to us as a team to have that and in the past has proven kind of a game changer for us."

Drakeford-Lewis said they had not paid too much attention to the criticisms of the squad as a second rate side.

"It's just really important that we stay within our bubble and focus on what we can control, obviously we acknowledge it's a different team to potentially what other people were expecting but we know that it's a really talented squad and we've got a lot to put out on court and we can't wait to show everyone what we can do."

She said they might surprise a few people.

"There's a lot of girls have been playing in the super league in England for a number of years now and are actually really quite experienced in that space but obviously aren't exposed at international level so we've got a lot to give, it will be interesting to see how we come up against the New Zealand team and we're really looking forward to it."