Pacific Games: Netball preview

Photo: Tonga Netball

Netballers take to the courts at the Pacific Games in Honiara today. Meet two of the top contenders.

The Tongan Tala

The Tongan Tala are the team to look out for at this year’s Pacific Games. While they finished with a silver in the last Pacific Games, they have dominated recent regional competitions.

Tonga Netball CEO, Salote Sisifa, says it is good to see the side gaining recognition.  “We’ve gone so far as a silver medal in the 2019 games where we lost by one point to the Cook Islands. We hope to do our best this year.”

Sisifa credits head coach, Jaqua Pori-Makea-Simpson, for much of their success.

“Through her [Jaqua], we’ve managed to form our national team and use her experience to have our players perform at a high level. That also gained the interest of our players who are playing in overseas clubs,” she said.

Most of the team is based in Australia and New Zealand but “choosing to represent Tonga always gives them a sense of national pride. They are doing it for their families, villages, islands, and for themselves. The girls are happy and proud to wear that red uniform,” she added.

“It’s totally a different level playing in the World Cups,” said Sisifa.

“Teams have to qualify in order to compete. Before it was usually Fiji, Cook Islands and Samoa who were taking turns to play at that level [by invitation],” said Sisifa.

“We’re very happy with how we performed and what we’ve accomplished [in South Africa]. We claimed it as our first time because we were pretty new to everything.”

Sisifa added: “Mo’onia Gerrard and Catherine Tuivaiti added so much value to the team especially when our girls looked lost in the [game]. Those two would hold it down for them. In 2027, should we qualify again, I’m sure these girls will have had their touch and feel of the World Cup.”

The Talas finished 8th in the 2023 Netball World Cup in South Africa. Sisifa says, “we feel we’ve earned our place in the world”.

Netball development has been growing in Tonga, thanks to the assistance of Netball Australia.

“Through their partnership, we’ve developed so much at the grassroots level. We are fortunate that we have committees throughout all the main and outer islands,” said Sisifa.

“We are very happy that all development comes under one umbrella of the Tonga Netball Association. That includes junior netball, club netball and even the school netball. We have a program for workplaces and ministries called Corporate Netball. We also have men’s and mixed netball competitions,” Sisifa explained.

“Not everyone will become an elite level netball player. So, for us here in Tonga, we’re just looking at netball as a vehicle to drive healthy lifestyles and encourage social gatherings,” she added.

In terms of pathways, Sisifa says, “We are investing in the future of our Tala. We are focusing on our young girls [from as young as 12 years old], moulding them to reach their full potential. We’re also preparing our Under 21s for the qualifiers next year. And we look forward to the 2025 World Youth Cup in Gibraltar.”

At the Pacific Games, Tonga is in Pool A with Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Niue and Cook Islands.

The Fiji Pearls

Fiji has won more Pacific Games medals over the history of the Pacific Games, seven gold and two silver medals.

The road has not been easy, says President Vivian Koster, who says the organisation’s first, and only paid staff member was only hired in 2012, with the help of Netball New Zealand and Netball Australia.

“We do have our struggles at Netball Fiji, and like any sport you are always looking for funds because you have many great plans. It doesn’t have to be massive funding but just enough to get things moving. We are trying to diversify our sponsorships. We’ve pulled in some new sponsors but it’s on-going work,” she said.

Of this year’s World Cup campaign, Koster recalls, “We went into the World Cup at 19th in the world [the second lowest ranked team in the tournament]. We were able to beat Trinidad & Tobago and Zimbabwe. Both teams were ranked higher than us. And even in the games that we didn’t win, some of our girls played so well that they were noticed by other international coaches.”

“We had seven debutants and there were games where we could see that they were feeling the pressure but that they were able to pick themselves up again. Overall, we are happy with our performance.”

Koster says Netball Fiji understands it needs to build its player base and bridge the gap between club level competition and elite level competition.  It is launching a national academy to meet that need next year.

“We have 30 players in that National Academy who are between the ages of 17 and 19. They undergo fitness tests and train to have the opportunity of becoming a high-performance athlete. This will also help us in terms of selecting our national Fiji Pearls squad. It’s a slow process but it’s a process that we are on,” added Koster.

Growing netball in the rural areas is also important.

“While we [the national team]] were away in South Africa this year our sports manager was up in Vanua Levu to conduct umpiring and coaching workshops in Labasa, Savusavu and Bua. We’ve also done workshops up in Naitasiri. It’s good to see the Naitasiri Netball Association reignited itself. In fact, they got some new courts in Vunidawa. We hope to go up and play some games there soon. We also did some work in Vanua Balavu, in Lau where we held a tournament on the island,” said Koster.

“Our job is to ensure that our young players can see a pathway into the Fiji Pearls environment. In the Fiji Secondary Schools Finals, we get talent identification scouts and National Academy scouts attend the games. That way players know when these people are watching they have a huge opportunity to showcase themselves.”

“We need to do more work to get the Fiji Pearl brand out there.”

Koster believes the future is bright for the sport. “We are not an Olympic sport yet but we hope netball will finally feature in the 2032 Brisbane Games. The ONOC [Oceania National Olympic Committee] encourages gender parity and equality so we must have both women’s and men’s teams in order to be included.”

“We have a national men’s competition and next year we’re hoping to actually have overseas teams come over to play. It is important for us to encourage men’s netball, that’s why our men’s team are the official training partners of the Fiji Pearls,” she said.

Building up for the Pacific Games Koster says, “I think Samoa has a very good team. Watch out for Samoa. Cook Islands and Papua New Guinea played in the Nations Cup in October. They’ve got some very experienced players in their teams. Cook Islands are the reigning Pacific Games gold medalists so we’ll expect them to be really good too”, said Koster.

Fiji is in pool B with Norfolk Islands, Samoa and host nation Solomon Islands