Two Pacific nations have booked their tickets to the World Cup in South Africa. Here we take a look at their meteoric rise to competing with the best of the best.
By Matt Fotia
They might be home to a combined one million people, but the tiny island nations of Fiji and Tonga cannot be underestimated – at least on the netball court.
Tonga Tala and the Fiji Pearls bested the likes of the Cook Islands, Papua New Guinea and Samoa in the Oceania Netball World Cup Qualifiers to earn their spot at the behemoth of international netball.
As they countdown to the Netball World Cup in Cape Town next year, the two sides have reflected on how far they’ve come and, more importantly, how they plan to compete with the world’s best.
TONGA ON SONG
For Tonga, 2023 will mark the first time the Tala have reached the ‘main round’ of the World Cup, having previously taken part in the preliminary rounds at the 1999 tournament in Christchurch.
In Christchurch, Tonga won their opening fixture against Hong Kong by 25 goals but were unable to get past Northern Ireland in the second round of qualifying.
Tonga’s path to the World Cup was not easy. It occurred against the backdrop of hardship for the nation, with the Covid-19 pandemic coupling up with natural disasters during the past few years.
Speaking in July, Tonga Tala captain Hulita Veve said that her side’s qualification was a way to spread joy for all Tongans.
“This victory is huge for us as a team and for our country,” she said.
“With everything that Tonga has been through this past year with the volcanic eruption, tsunami, and Covid-19, it was a way to send hope and joy to our country.”
Veve also said she and her teammates were excited to put their best foot forward on the world’s stage and show the netball community what Tonga has in store.
“Going into the World Cup our goal is just to do the very best we can,” she said.
“We have qualified and that by itself is big for Tonga so all we can do now is play some good netball and show the world the talent we have.
“We are looking forward to the experience and to just get out there in the red dress and represent our country.”
Opponents should not take Tonga lightly, despite their debutant status when Cape Town rolls around.
The Tala have strong claims on getting through to the quarter finals, having come through the 2022 Oceania World Cup Qualifiers in Fiji and the recent PacificAus Sports Netball Series in Queensland undefeated, winning 10 matches across the two tournaments by an average of 25 goals.
Their squad boasts some strong names, with the captain Veve having been a part of the Queensland Firebirds system since 2016. She is joined by NSW Swifts training partner Claire Iongi, Uneeq Palavi (Victorian Fury) and sisters Salote and ‘Api Taufa who both represent Central Manawa in New Zealand’s ANZ Premiership.
Tack onto this the fact that the Tala are ranked eighth in the world, higher than the likes of Scotland, Wales, Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados and Zimbabwe with a dream World Cup debut now a reality.
The Tala will be joined by Fiji, who are no strangers to the pinnacle of world netball, with the Pearls set to compete in their 10th World Cup, having first qualified for the 1975 tournament in Auckland where they finished eighth with three wins.
Fiji have appeared at every World Cup since 1999, where they escaped the preliminary rounds and eventually made the quarter finals, eventually losing to the hosts New Zealand. The Pearls finished sixth in that World Cup, going down to South Africa in a play-off.
They have been unable to reach those lofty heights since, with the most recent World Cup seeing them come away in 14th place.
Unlike their Tongan counterparts, the Pearls had to battle for qualification, sneaking through thanks to a 45-43 victory over Samoa and 17 goal win over the Cook Islands during the 2022 Oceania Netball World Cup Qualifiers in front of an enthusiastic home crowd.
Pearls Head Coach Una Rokoura expressed her relief at qualifying for Cape Town back in July.
“It is such a relief to have qualified,” she said.
“(There was) so much pressure playing at home, but the feeling is unreal.
“Our journey has been tough – we had a great start, struggled against Tonga, but we bounced back and came out firing against Samoa and Cooks Islands.
“Each player was outstanding knowing we had to win our last two matches to qualify.”
The Pearls, who have PacificAus Sports Netball Series MVP Alisi Naqiri amongst their ranks, are ranked 15th in the world, but are aiming high, with an eye on improving on their 2019 performance.
“We want to finish in the top 12,” Rokoura said.
“Our hope is that we will be competitive with the rest of the world’s best netball teams and improve our overall finish and world ranking.”
The 2023 Netball World Cup will be held from July 28 until August 6, 2023, at the International Convention Centre in Cape Town with the tournament draw scheduled for November 30, 2022.