Tongan netballers set for crucial year

Action from the Tonga (red) and Papua New Guinea game in Suva Photo: Netball Fiji

Action from the Tonga (red) and Papua New Guinea game in Suva Photo: Netball Fiji

If there is anyone who knows the struggles and the new-found fortune of Tonga Netball it is Salote Sisifa.

And she knows that despite the success of 2022 the Tala, Tonga’s national netball side, needs to remain focused on the year ahead.

The media personality turned sports administrator has been at the helm of Tonga Netball for the past eight years.

When Salote came in the task of revamping the sport in the Kingdom and its management was just beginning.

From winning their first-ever silver medal at the Pacific Games in 2019, to climbing to seventh spot in the current world rankings, the Tala has become the national team to cheer for – on the same level as how Tongans would cheer for the Mate Ma’a Tonga rugby league team and the ‘Ikale Tahi national rugby side.

While local players started off the turnaround at the 2019 Games, overseas-based players such as captain Hulita Vete and goalshooter Unique Palavi, now dominate the current squad.

However, Salote and her team are hard at work on local development programmes to develop young players.

The Tala spent a month in Tonga in January as part of the linking programme and Salote points towards the good work and combination of the team management, led by head coach Jaqua Pori-Makea-Simpson, as key to their success so far.

“I definitely have to commend the coaching staff there for the work they have put in over time towards the performance and outcomes that Tala have displayed on court,” she told RNZ Pacific.

“At the same time, I think it also credits the way Tala have won their games. Not only winning but winning by good margins, against teams like Samoa, Fiji and Cook Islands who have been well ranked and have won against stronger teams of Africans and Europeans over the years.”

She paid tribute to the PacificAUS Sports programme under the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and how that has helped in developing netball in the Pacific.

“Really grateful for PacificAUS Sports for creating the opportunity for Tala to continue to play as well as the countries of the Pacific because it is within those games that we’re getting to where we are in terms of a ranking,” she said.

“There are requirements, of course, of World Netball that we have to play specific games during a certain time and without the PacificAUS Sports platform we would not be getting this.

“For the island teams, we usually just wait for the Pacific Games or the Mini Games, which is affordable. We cannot afford to do tours of Africa and Europe. But you know, given the platform that Australia has given us it has really boosted netball throughout the Pacific and Tala has taken advantage of that.”

A successful 100 percent record was Tala’s story in 2022, winning both the PacificAUS Netball Series, in March and October, plus the Oceania Championships in Suva, Fiji.

The Oceania win also confirmed their spot at the 2023 Netball World Cup, a first for Tonga Netball.

Squad and challenge

As the World Cup beckons, the Tala has a strong preparation programme set up.

Losing two 2022 squad members through church and family commitments, Salote said the Tala is lucky that the majority of their winning combinations have stayed on.

That makes the work easier for the team management.

A provisional squad of 25 players will be competing to make the 15 that will play at the upcoming PacificAus Sports Netball Series on the Gold Coast in Australia from March 24 to April 23.

“They will all be at the camp next month leading up to our first competition for the year, on the Gold Coast. From there, there’ll be a another camp in May and also in June; there’ll be split camps for Australia and New Zealand,” Salote revealed.

“Then there’ll be one final tour to Australia for the Tala team early in July, where they will be playing top Australian clubs. This is the whole lead-up for the World Cup. They return to their homes, and around July 18/19 Tala will assemble in Sydney to make their way to South Africa.”

The challenge right now for the Pacific’s best netball side is ensuring that everything is working to plan.

Players are in New Zealand and Australia. Not together in one place but spread out at various locations.

Salote said modern technology and the players’ self discipline and honesty has helped.

“Tala continues to make preparations. And of course, our team is not your normal team where the team stays together and prepares together,” she said.

“We heavily rely on sports science and technology, as our team live in two countries, New Zealand and Australia, and in different states as well.”

Salote said the fact that other teams have been included in the upcoming series in Australia means the competition will be different and there will be a lot more lessons.

Tala will meet Singapore, Kenya and Zambia in their pool matches before teams are ranked for the playoffs.

CEO of Tonga Netball Association Salote Sisifa holds a picture of young Tongan netballers with New Zealand netballer Irene van Dyk. The picture is a gift for New Zealand's Speaker Trevor Mallard

CEO of Tonga Netball Association Salote Sisifa holds a picture of young Tongan netballers with New Zealand netballer Irene van Dyk. The picture is a gift for New Zealand’s Speaker Trevor Mallard Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

Source: RNZ