Netball: Tonga names youthful side for Pacific series

By Iliesa Tora, Senior Sports Journalist of rnz.co.nz and is republished with permission

The Tongan Tala netball team that will defend the Pacific Netball Series 2024 title in Brisbane next weekend will include eight under-21 players.

The Tongan under-21 netball team in Brisbane earlier this month. Players from the squad have been named in the Tala squad. Photo: Tonga Netball

Head coach Jaqua Pori-Makea-Simpson says they have taken a different approach this time around by giving their youth players the chance to taste game time at the event.

Four new players have made it into the squad travelling to Brisbane next week.

The players have been part of the Tongan under-21 team preparing for the World Youth Cup qualifiers in September.

Pori-Makea-Simpson has been working with the squad over the last few weeks, including their trials held at the Bond University High Performance Training Centre earlier this month.

Toughest challenge yet

Calling it their “toughest challenge so far”, the coach said they will be competitive in Brisbane, as they aim to win their fourth series title since 2022.

“It’s an interesting time of the year for us to have another Pacific Naples series, you know, and the season can be difficult when we’ve got contracted players,” she told RNZ Pacific.

“Our approach is probably a little bit different for this tournament and we are using it as an opportunity to bleed in some new and young players and give them some experience.

“We’ve got the World Youth Cup qualifiers in September for under-21s, so we’ve got quite a young squad this time.”

That will mean inspirational captain Hulita Veve and Kelela Iongi, who are both on contract, will not be appearing for the champions.

World Cup squad members Mo’onia Gerrard, Jessyka Ngauamo and Salote Taufa are out of the squad.

Alice Cocker, Lata Holi, Liesl Hopoate and Emma Mateo continue the tradition alongside the Palavi sisters of Beyonce and star shooter Uneeq.

“In total, with this group, we’ve got eight players that are under-21 but my squad in the past have been generally quite young, which people probably don’t know,” Pori-Nakea-Simpson said.

“But to carry a squad of eight under-21s is really exciting for us moving into the next cycle, and the future of netball in Tonga.”

She said it is going to be tough and the hardest challenge for the team, compared to the past three tournaments.

But she believes giving young players the opportunity now will put Tonga netball in good stead looking forward to the future.

“I think it is about just giving them the court time and experience and you don’t know what you don’t know. And the only way you get experience is by actually doing it.

“We’ve got some new ones coming through that will give us an opportunity to look at some different combinations.

“But carrying experience around them also gives them the opportunity to see better, do better and try different things with different players.

“It’s a really, really exciting time for us. We’re going to be competitive, and it’s just an incredible opportunity moving into the World Youth Cup qualifiers in September.”

The Tongan Tala netball team after winning the gold medal at the 2023 Pacific Games in Honiara last November.

The Tongan Tala netball team after winning the gold medal at the 2023 Pacific Games in Honiara last November. Photo: Tonga Netball

Excited to be back

Pori-Makea-Simpson said the team is excited to get together again next week, following a long break, after their gold medal win at the 2023 Pacific Games in Honiara.

She has called on Tongans in Brisbane and surrounding areas to turn up at the Nissan Arena, Brisbane from June 10 to cheer the team on.

Tonga is set to meet Fiji, Namibia, Samoa, Singapore and for the first time the Australian First Nations team.

They start their campaign on June 10 against the First Nations team, meet Namibia on June 11, Samoa on June 12 and Tonga on June 13.

The final is scheduled for June 15.

The Tongan Talas full squad: Luana Aukafolau, Alice Cocker, Lose Fainga’anuku, Lucia Fauonuku, Marie Hansen, Lata Holi, Liesl Hopoate, Ana Kailahi, Emma Mateo, Beyonce Palavi, Uneeq Palavi, Silia Setefano, Peti Talanoa, Valu Toutaiolepo, Tali Uia.

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