Team Bath are hoping to prove that two heads are better than one as they plot a course back to the Vitality Netball Superleague summit in the new year.
The most successful franchise in the domestic competition's history missed out on a play-off place for the first time in 2015 but have added a trio of world-class stars to a squad that improved markedly as last season progressed.
It will be led by two women, both of whom command huge respect for their work at club and international level, after long-serving Jess Thirlby took up a new position as director of netball and Anna Stembridge (nee Mayes) returned to the blue and golds' University of Bath Sports Training Village headquarters as head coach.
Stembridge held the same role with the England team for four years until recently, with her reign including a first-ever series whitewash of netballing superpowers Australia in 2013.
The duo are renewing a successful partnership they enjoyed with both the England under-21 side and Team Bath – which is the Superleague franchise for a West Country region that encompasses Gloucestershire, Wiltshire, Dorset, Somerset, Devon and Cornwall – from 2008-2010
“It feels like coming home,” said Stembridge, who was born and bred in Swindon. “Both Jess and I were seen to be quite young when we last coached together at Team Bath but I've always been extremely passionate about coaching, about people and ultimately taking a team on a journey to a scary, crazy goal. That's what drives me and gets me out of bed; to get to work.
“I feel very fortunate to be able to work with Jess, who is one of the most creative and innovative coaches I have ever known. I feel as though she brings out the best in me and hope that it also works the other way around.”
The close-season departures of experienced England pair Pamela Cookey and Serena Guthrie for eventual Superleague champions Surrey Storm and New Zealand outfit Northern Mystics respectively left Team Bath with a gaping void to fill a year ago and they ended the 2015 campaign fifth in the eight-team table, nine points off a top-four finish which would have continued a previously unbroken run of nine appearances in the end-of-season play-offs.
The league was launched in 2006 and Team Bath lifted four of the first five titles on offer, adding another in 2013. Hertfordshire Mavericks and Manchester Thunder are the next most prolific teams but are still some way behind with two championships apiece.
Thirlby has been involved in all of the franchise's Superleague triumphs, first as a player and then as a coach, having previously turned out in all five of their seasons in the former Super Cup. She says the recruitment of Stembridge means next season's coaching structure will see Team Bath break new ground on the domestic scene.
“Me shifting to a director of netball role and Anna taking on the head coach position is a real first,” said Thirlby, who has been associated with the University of Bath for 17 of her 36 years. “It's the first time either of us has known that across the league and that in itself is very reflective of the philosophy here, finding new ways to do things and not just for the sake of it, but because we feel it will add value.
“If you look across the whole league, I feel quite confident we are providing the players with two quality coaches who have spent a lot of time critiquing our own practice, reflecting on them and taking opportunities whether we felt ready for them or not. Now is a really good time for us to come back together and really see what as a unit we can do with like-minded athletes who want to put a stake in the ground and see how far they want to go.”
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A similar set-up that has been used more and more frequently in both rugby union and football in recent times but Thirlby insists her role will be very much hands-on whenever the squad take to the court. The challenge for both women is greater when compared with their counterparts from more high-profile sports as neither holds a full-time position with the Superleague squad. Thirlby's job also includes England Netball and Team Bath Performance Programme facets, while Stembridge is a senior lecturer in sports coaching at Cardiff Metropolitan University.
“It can be quite confusing for people,” admitted Thirlby. “We need to give everyone we are working with, players and staff, clarity on who is the person to go to for X and Y. We both see ourselves coaching. You might see directors of rugby in the stand or the boardroom but my passion still very much lies in coaching, although I also know there is a huge amount of work to be done in order to enjoy that experience.
“Anna is fundamentally going to be responsible for what happens on court. I'll be by the side of her every step of the way, planning and preparing training and contributing. We have been quite clear that I will be there, at games, but what this move allows me is some head space – if you ever get any as a coach – to work with the university netball department and the franchise board and look at what comes next and what needs to change. Even though we are at the beginning of this, I do feel really comfortable with it.”
One thing both Thirlby and Stembridge are very clear on is the importance of protecting the Team Bath “culture”, which includes a proud tradition of producing and nurturing their own talent. Seven members of the England squad that finished the summer's World Cup with a bronze medal had spent time playing for the franchise during their careers.
“One of the things I feel privileged to be part of within Team Bath is that it does build that foundation,” said Stembridge. “It is important to enable athletes to grow as people as well as netball players and there are so many examples of that happening here. You aren't always going to get the results straight away. For me, sitting a bit further back, last year was a building year and actually if you looked at how close the matches were, then real credit should go to the coaches and players for doing that and still getting the performances.”
A “robust” review process followed last season and led to the appointment of Stembridge and the recruitment of three players who will add more than a sprinkling of undoubted class when the 2016 season begins on 'Super Saturday' at the Genting Arena, Birmingham (January 30). England defender Eboni Beckford-Chambers is returning to the scene of her four previous Superleague titles following a successful spell in the ANZ Championship in Australia, while Team Bath have also recruited South Africa World Cup stars Lenize Potgieter and Karla Mostert.
All three will be in action when the University of Bath hosts an exciting triangular tournament also featuring Surrey Storm and Mavericks on Saturday, November 14.
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Thirlby said: “What better place to start than against last year's Superleague finalists? It is timed really well with how big the sport is at the minute and the attention it is getting. I think for our fans it is fantastic because there will be a massive appetite for it. They will get the chance to not only see their own team but the champions and runners-up of last year.
“It will be a big dress rehearsal for us. It will be as big as any home event and in some ways even bigger for our fans, who will get real value for money. Hopefully these changes show people how serious we are about getting back and competing for top spot.”