England shook off early jitters to get their Commonwealth Games title defence off to a winning start with a 74-22 victory over Trinidad and Tobago on Friday. A nervous start, marred by several shooting errors, were eventually brushed aside as the Roses found their rhythm in front of an approving home crowd.
Shooting at just 43% in the first quarter, Helen Housby, who scored the winning shot in 2018, looked off the beat as the post repeatedly denied her in the opening stages. Forced to turn to the slightly more reliable hands of goal shooter Jo Harten, the continuing flow of gains from the Roses’ defending end enabled England to lead 15-6 at the end of the quarter.
Upsetting a home team with a title to defend was always going to be a tough ask for the Calypso Girls, who are without two of their best shooters in Samantha Wallace and Khalifa McCollin for the tournament. But the mountain got even harder for them to climb when a resolute Roses returned to court for the second quarter ready to persuade anxious onlookers they were not overawed by the occasion.
An eight-goal goal run at the start of the next 15 minutes set the tone for the rest of the game as England wrestled control away from Trinidad and Tobago who, to their credit, were unrelenting in disrupting the Roses’ attacking structures.
But their own sloppiness became their downfall as England’s defenders continued to capitalise on the loose balls falling their way. Starting goalkeeper Geva Mentor and local hero Layla Guscoth began by keeping their opposition shooters to single digits at the end of each quarter, which was a feat dutifully maintained by those who came on to replace them.
Taking advantage of the growing scoreline gap in England’s favour head coach Jess Thirlby rolled out the changes, giving all 12 of her squad a chance to get a feel for the court and the home crowd. It was ultimately an unsurprising decision given the edginess that defined the first 10 minutes.
Among the substitutions it was Commonwealth debutant Eleanor Cardwell who emphatically threw her hand up for a starting seven position with her ice-cold composure. As soon as she entered the court the shooter took on the bulk of the scoring load and with lethal accuracy; putting up all 30 of her shots on the first time of asking.
Cardwell’s performance will leave something for Thirlby to chew on as her clean sheet sits in stark comparison to that of Harten and Housby, who finished the game on 83% and 67% respectively. But when it came to their nervy starts the England coach maintained her confidence in her players.
“On balance, it’s a good start. It’s a great settler,” said Thirlby after the game. “It would be easy to get derailed by a few uncharacteristic missed shots from Jo and Helen. They’re not rookies, they’ll fix that up.
“Overall, we’ll be pleased but a little bit of healthy dissatisfaction as well so that keeps us spurred on to elevate that performance. It was brilliant to get all the girls out. We had five Commonwealth debutants there.”
Mentor, who is competing in her sixth Games, added: “We were leaking a lot of energy just with nerves and anticipation. But it was great to get out there.”
England have six more games to win if they are to become back-to-back Commonwealth champions, starting with Malawi on Saturday.