After a 30-hour flight, two weeks of self-isolation in a hotel, leaving head coach Jess Thirlby behind, five Covid-19 tests and no international netball for nine months – the England Roses are ready to play the world champions in New Zealand.
The Roses face the Silver Ferns in Hamilton in a three-Test series starting on Wednesday, after the government gave the green light for them to travel into the country, under strict coronavirus protocols.
The squad arrived in New Zealand on 9 October and entered self-isolation immediately.
They were provided with an exercise bike in their rooms, given access to sports TV channels, and allocated times to go outside to exercise to help pass the time and stay fit.
“It’s been so professional over here – the government has told us exactly what to do and have done an amazing job to get the games off the ground,” England co-captain Laura Malcolm told BBC Sport.
“We have passed all of the Covid tests, everything has been smooth and we were able to slowly keep growing our ‘bubbles’ into bigger groups, and train as a full group for a week.”
The world number three side’s preparations were dealt a blow before they even set off, with head coach Thirlby forced to stay behind after she tested positive for coronavirus.
Thirlby, who has no symptoms, says it “stings” to miss out on the tour but that she trusts her coaches on the ground – Kat Ratnapala and her assistant Colette Thomson – to “make decisions during live play”.
Malcolm, 29, says it is not “ideal” to be without Thirlby but stand-in coaches Ratnapala and Thomson have made sure the “extra challenge has not hit the squad too hard”.
“It feels like Jess is here with us all the time,” Malcolm said. “We feel her presence – she pulled an all-nighter for meetings the other night.”
As to how coaching will work on match days, Malcolm is keen for a high-tech solution to bring Thirlby court-side.
“I am hoping for some sort of Star Wars hologram,” she joked.
This is a young England squad including seven players with fewer than 10 international caps and one missing several experienced Australia-based players, including Jo Harten and Geva Mentor.
“We’re the underdogs but this is a great opportunity to test ourselves against the best and get a benchmark,” Thirlby told BBC Radio 5 Live.
“No other countries know when their opportunity to play international netball will come yet.”
And Malcolm added: “We are here to compete – we are here to take the Test series.
“We can’t even play a fun warm-up game together without wanting to beat each other.”
The majority of New Zealand’s players were able to play in a full, but slightly condensed, domestic season while the English Superleague was abandoned in May after less than four rounds because of coronavirus.
Malcolm says spending months in the UK’s lockdown has helped the team prepare for quarantine abroad and “brought them closer together”.
That unexpected down-time also allowed injured players longer to recover, with defender Jodie Gibson, who won Commonwealth gold in 2018, selected after overcoming a serious knee injury that ruled her out of the world cup.
“Not having a full season in England has meant we haven’t had to play through little niggles, which doesn’t usually happen,” centre-courter Malcolm, who has 28 England caps, said.
And unlike most sports in England, the Tests will be played in front of spectators – an opportunity the team is “excited about and embracing”.
“You have to respect that New Zealand have had a normal-ish season and we haven’t but we have prepared the best way we can,” Malcolm said.
“It’s a great opportunity to soak in the competitive atmosphere and build those Roses connections – some old, some new.
“We are desperate to get back to the game that we love and get back to playing.”
- Wednesday, 28 October, Claudelands Arena, Hamilton, 06:00 GMT
- Friday, 30 October, Claudelands Arena, Hamilton, 06:00 GMT
- Sunday, 1 November, Claudelands Arena, Hamilton, 06:00 GMT
England: Eleanor Cardwell, George Fisher, Kadeen Corbin, Sophie Drakeford-Lewis, Yasmin Parsons, Laura Malcolm, Serena Guthrie, Gabriella Marshall, Jade Clarke, Imogen Allison, Amy Carter, Fran Williams, Razia Quashie, Vicki Oyesola, Jodie Gibson, Halimat Adio.
New Zealand: Ameliaranne Ekenasio, Monica Falkner, Maia Wilson, Gina Crampton, Claire Kersten, Shannon Saunders, Whitney Souness, Sam Winders, Karin Burger, Sulu Fitzpatrick, Kelly Jury, Jane Watson