Tonga Netball surprised many in the region at the Mini Games in Vanuatu in December last year when they lost narrowly to Papua New Guinea in the netball finals.

Losing by a mere nine (9) points, the national side returned home with a silver medal – their highest accomplishment on the court so far since the revival started in 2012.

And with that result there is an air of optimism within the local netball circle that things can get better, especially financially and expert technical support for the sport.

General Manager Salote Sisifa spoke with Times Sports here in Nuku’alofa and shared her thoughts about the campaign so far and what challenges they face, in a country where rugby – whether it be the 15 or 13 men codes – take precedent over almost all other sports.

Salote says Government has been unfair with their funding allocation, turning almost a blind eye on minor sports.

However, she and her team are not letting that be an obstacle to derail their plans.

The silver medal win in Vanuatu has lifted the spirits within and the fact that there is a possibility of qualifying for the Netball World Cup in 2019 is an added booster.

Now being a member of the international netball fraternity and having the chance to be ranked amongst the best in the world, Tonga Netball can only look up and forward.

Here’s the full interview with Salote Sisifa, General Manager of Tonga Netball:

IT: How do you see the journey so far and some of the highlights of the journey with Tonga Neball?

SS: First I think what should be emphasised is that I don’t say it’s myself or where netball is at is because of myself being there but I have to give credit to all those who started it, laid the foundations, which is the government of Australia through their programme the Pacific Sports Partnership, the PSP. And when they started back in 2010 here in Tonga where netball was nothing but a few passionate people coming together.

Netball Tonga won silver at the Mini Games in Vanuatu and now have the chance to play at the World Netball Cup. Photo: NETBALL TONGA

Netball Tonga won silver at the Mini Games in Vanuatu and now have the chance to play at the World Netball Cup. Photo: NETBALL TONGA

So when they came in they laid the foundation – to have an office, to have governance in place and everything – so there were two people before me who had run that. And I came in in 2013 and basically continued from where they had left off and started.

I work with a Board – there is a Board that I report to – myself as General Manager, and then I have three staff working with me at the office.

And we have volunteers throughout Tonga and we also have our officials. I would pay tribute for the success of netball today here in Tonga to all who have been involved from Day One through passion and commitment to netball.

I would like to say I give credit to the experience gained through working with Tonga Broadcasting Commission and also colleagues and networks I have worked with. It is through those experiences that I come to appreciate more where I am at today and just the part of dealing with people I believe that if you give the space and freedom everybody has their own initiatives, it’s just about supporting them.

I think that is what has worked best for us here in netball. It’s always about continuous talks. The plan is ongoing. There are always plans – short term and long term  – but I have always had an open door policy with the people I work with.

You know we would try something and then we would come back sit down and see what worked, what did it and how can we make it better. Then we implement our next step.

For me the way I see the people we work with, my girls at the office, the volunteers, everybody feels it belongs to them. It’s not mine and it does not belong to the Board and that they are just there to carry out work of someone else. Each and every person involved feels that netball is theirs and they have to take care of it with the best of their abilities and dedication.

So I’d have to say that is a great tribute to where netball in Tonga is at today, the part where everybody feels it’s theirs and it’s their responsibility to nurture and take care of netball. I am very blessed to be working with a whole bunch of good dedicated men and women in netball.

When I started in netball there were a few things in place, tournaments were in place, so what we tried to do is make the tournaments annual and we have been able to do that now.

Throughout the year we have three big tournaments and it’s not a matter of when we come to a new year we say oh what are we gonna do this year. All our clubs and volunteers know that we have three big tournaments in a year that we work towards and other than that we have smaller programmes in between.

From those tournaments we do our scouting for girls to represent Tonga at events at the regional level and the ones at the international level.

We are very fortunate for the help given by Netball Australia. Tonga for the first time in 2014 became a member of the International Netball Federation.

I have to say that is a milestone because playing netball before here in Tonga, well it’s like we would gather a group of people and go and play Fiji, which would not go towards anything other than the glory.

Local netball action

Local netball action

But it’s harder now if we were to do that because national teams would not waste their time playing a team just for the sake of playing and that was evident when I started. There was a team from Tonga that wanted to join a competition hosted in Fiji where they had teams from the region.

Tonga, not being a member of INF you know, Fiji counted us as a fun-playing member. We played but we were not part of the competition like Samoa and the Cook Islands. So it was things like that which meant, until we became a member of the INF and had gained the recognition, that meant we now have to be counted.

Then we have to play eight countries before we are ranked. So we are currently going through the regional competitions, which was the 2015 Pacific Games in Papua New Guinea and the Mini Games which we have just finished off in Vanuatu in December.

There were requirements for that and we still have not fulfilled the requirements of the INF for us to be able to be ranked. But hopefully by April this year we would be able to fulfil all that and be ranked.

So at the moment being a member of the INF it’s all about funding and be able to take part in the competitions, whether it be Europe or Asia, it’s just a matter of us registering and having the funding and everything. But the doors are open for us.

It was great to see the outcome of the girls playing in Vanuatu at the Mini Games given the facilities we have available here in Tonga. I think at the moment the best is still at the Atele Indoor Stadium and we have our court at BSP. Other than that our girls are pretty much still training on the grass courts and also we just do not have the equipment which national teams around the region have access to.

Some of our accomplishments also include the partnerships we hold. At grassroots here in Tonga, also with the help of Australia, we try and initiate the health drive that to use netball to drive men and women to live a healthier lifestyle.

And before here in Tonga, say in the 80’s and 90’s, even in the past years netball was looked at as a women sports, with only the fakaletis would also play.

So what I did was there was a time where there was no funding here in Tonga and my view was if we were to wait for funding netball here would die. So what we did was we went to ask MIA (Ministry of Internal Affairs) give us your Fiefia Sports we will run it for you. Because I thought we needed a platform just to keep going. This was when I was already in netball. The funding had stopped around 2014 and I went to MIA and offered our service and to them I think it was like ‘wow why did someone want to do that’.

I said give it over to us and we will run everything free of charge. We were going to run everything from officiating, organising and they gave it to us, the Fiefia Sports. And from that day until today we still run Fiefia Sports. It was a platform where we could push netball while at the same time also push other sports.

So we opened up the competition Mix, Men and Women. Then we had like 50 something teams from around here in Tonga playing. And then we could see the men were acceptable of netball.

Netball coaches and officials

Netball coaches and officials

And comments that came out of that were like “we have always thought netball was a women’s sports until they came and had a run” and they found out that netball had a set of rules, there’s somewhat a relation to life in netball.

There are rules, there are boundaries and you can not cross over so it was a good experience for us having done that for Government, through the Fiefia Sports. So from that day onwards until today netball still runs Fiefia Sports supporting MIA.

So we also continued because we saw from Fiefia Sports that there were others who were not government ministries here in Tonga who were not able to take part. So I asked them why they were not coming to Fiefia Sports and they said the time was not convenient to them.

So I said if we make the time convenient would they play and they said they would. So we put up the Corporate Netball which is now big on its own. All the other departments and organisations here in Tonga who do not classify themselves in Fiefia Sports they come into Corporate Netball.

I think that is one of the things I have to attribute the success of netball here in Tonga is continuously tailoring the events that we have according to the audience. So it’s about ongoing planning and talks and asking questions so we try and tailor the programmes accordingly.

So we have Fiefia running and also Corporate netball – two different audiences – and we have some people playing in both competitions. So that has been good.

Because of the consistency of our programmes and everything we have managed to grab the attention and overall awareness from the people in Tonga.

Having the BSP courts is a joint initiative between us, BSP and also the Australian High Commission in Nuku’alofa and Tonga Power Limited.

We have tried to sell the idea to other workplaces here in Tonga and I think now they regret not taking that up in the beginning because now BSP they believe that was a worthwhile investment because of the exposure they getting and everything. At the same time BSP has won an award for it for being the Most Innovative Bank having that multi-purpose car park.

So it’s small things like that that has helped. It is very hard to source funding so we go into partnership. We all know here in Tonga that Tongan people love their rugby. But I said to the girls people don’t see the long journey we have made and it is all about the medals. Unless we win medals we will not get the recognition.

So after Vanuatu I am hopeful that Government and sponsors will pay more attention to netball because I feel that if it is done right and we continue the path we have taken initially netball..Tonga has a place in the world of netball..just like any other sport.

We see our girls have the natural physique and the talent is there but there are many things we are still lacking in, in comparison to other countries in the region.

Like for instance the part about being able to afford a High Performance Coach who is able to give that extra edge to the girls. At the moment it’s my development officer and she is doing her best and I have to give her credit for all that she is doing. But we all know we have our limitations in comparison to the region and internationally.

The next big event we are working on is all for next year, 2019.

That is the Pacific Games but the other bigger event is that in April this year Tonga will be playing qualifiers for the World Netball Cup and that is happening next year, 2019 in the United Kingdom.

So for us to get there there are regional competitions we have to take part in and the top 2 from the region will go representing Oceania. So we know the ranking in the Pacific at the moment the top is Fiji and the second is PNG. We are hopeful because PNG had won over us in Vanuatu.

But the final score difference was 9 points and with that I am hopeful that more assistance to our girls and our team from all aspects we have a chance of getting that second place or getting a place amongst the top two for the region to qualify for next year.

The qualifier is in Auckland in April this year. So all the countries in the Pacific will be vying for the top two places to go to the world meet. I am hopeful that we can do that.

The team that played in Vanuatu were all local girls. I have been talking to netball communities in New Zealand and Australia, just opening up the opportunities that I think will benefit not only us here in Tonga but also the Tongan girls there because it will be some good exposure for them on so many levels.

It is a long shot for them to get to the Silver Ferns or the Diamonds but to get exposure here in Tonga would be great for them. It will be a win win situation for all.

That is what is happening at the moment. So the plan is to have Team Tonga go in March to Auckland and there will be final trials there. That will open up to Tongan girls worldwide to attend the trial and the pick of the team will be selected to compete at the qualifiers.

So that is the main thing we are working towards now. Other than that we still have our three main tournaments running and also the other big thing this year for Tonga.

Last year we talked with Netball New Zealand and because of the success of us carrying out the Australian programme New Zealand have also put up the same thing and they wanted to focus on rugby and netball.

They had come and done research on the ground here and they were happy to start with Netball here in Tonga. And that program is focused on ages 7 up, which would really compliment our current programme, which focuses on girls 15 years old and up.

This will be a really good foundation for younger girls who want to get into netball.


IT:  Have you some ideas of who you want to select from outside?

SS:  We have identified some of the Tongan girls and we are working with Mo’onia Gerrad in Australia and there is also Catherine Latu from New Zealand and also a Tongan girl in the Silver Ferns, Timalisi.

But in discussions at the Oceania AGM with New Zealand it is really hard because of the barriers that they have put on the girls now. See they have gone so far down now that if you join their league at the age of 15 then you can’t play for any other national teams. But I am hopeful that with the changes to league rules they will be giving us their number three and number four players to select from. They are giving us their fourth and fifth choices. I mean, we know they are going to bench them all the time.

So I told their netball officials take your pick and give us the others but you know New Zealand and the way they do netball.

IT:  Are you also involved with the schools competition here?

SS: Yes we are involved with the schools competition. It was something we saw lacking and one of the contributing issue to that is that back in the 90’s there were only two sports. You either played rugby or netball. But then now there are so many other sports offered. At the same time we see that netball at colleges is not at the standard it used to be.

So this programme coming in with New Zealand we hope will help lift the sport back to the standard it was at.


IT:  You mentioned finance and the reality faced. What are young doing about funding for the qualifiers in April?

SS: There is no funding, that is the truth. So it is a matter of a lot of fundraising for us and also myself seeking sponsorship and be able to take the team over to New Zealand.

Also we are working with the community in New Zealand. There is a group TASA, just like our TASA here, and there is a group of people there willing to assist so hopefully something comes into fruition.

When I had started there was really no funding for us to take teams overseas. I thought that would be a platform to bring in interest and it was.

So we have been able to take teams overseas and they were all self-reliance on getting sponsors and our fundraising. And we see that because there is a lot of unemployment and those that have not had the opportunity to go overseas, it seems like a big thing for them to go and represent their country overseas. Whether it is in the Under-18, Under-21 or Men and Mixed teams they really carry it out with pride. So we continue with that and continue taking teams overseas.

It’s proven beneficial in many ways, like our Leitis that have tried going overseas and we all know how strict the visa is always. But I had a good talk with them and I told them you know if you guys do good this is the door opening and there is many behind you. Once of you go and play up that’s the end. So you know, I think the Board and our partners were a bit hesitant me taking over a whole bunch of men and mixed teams and I said I trust them and I think they trust and respect me enough not to do anything. Fortunately enough we have taken teams three times and nobody has overstayed. For me it’s about trusting them and giving them that space.

And they will give you that respect and trust back, so yeah, they have done well.


IT:  How have you seen the development in the last three years? Are there more players coming in to play and develop their skills in netball?

SS:  It has been consistent. At the same time it is challenging as there is more sports coming in and one of our biggest challenge is sports who are offering money to players. I think for us the players we have at the moment who are taking part in our tournaments I call them they are our passionate and loyal players.

There are those who have drifted because of the incentives and that is fair enough because everyone has to make a living. I would say yeah the numbers have been consistent and our players and officials that are coming through, they are our loyals.


IT:  How did you see the competition in Vanuatu?

SS:  I have to say that the competition in Vanuatu and the players that were there, I have to say that if the Mini Games and Pacific Games were able to hold it at that level, to say only local players take part, we, Tonga have a great chance of taking that Gold.

Not to complain, because that is allowed. Other than Fiji, Tonga, PNG, Solomons and Vanuatu, Cook Islands and Samoa had New Zealand based players. So you know, not to complain, as that is allowed by the law, it’s things like that, how are we to compete at local levels.

But then again it lifts the standards of the players as they see they have to improve to compete. In terms of the Games in Vanuatu I have to say that our girls did very well.

We met PNG in the finals who are second in the region and they were beating other teams by 30 something, which was the scores we were also giving other countries too. And then meeting PNG it was a 9 points difference.

It just goes to show that PNG have been around longer.


IT:  How do you plan to keep the current players and budding players interested in netball?

SS: I have held talks with TASA and MIA and it is really hard. That is my hope. After the Pacific Games in PNG in 2015 we’ve had a few players drifting off, getting married and having families. It’s hard to keep players because of just the love for netball.

So we have held talks and now having Inoke Afeaki taking the role as Sports Director at TASA they are interested in the idea of these girls being in netball as a career. So they want me to do a proposal and see how we can keep these girls year by year and put that into their annual budget.

But that is one of the things I am hopeful for. We have to recruit a High Performance Coach and not for someone to come and stay in-country. We will have someone in-country here to do things on a daily and weekly basis. We need to have someone come in at the high performance level to come, draft up a program of what the players need to be doing, you know, just that proper management of a team because my knowledge is limited when it comes to technical. All this is happening with me asking for help and things like that.


IT: The corporate competition, how many rounds do you have?

SS: This year the competition is three times. Because of the interest and everything and because it runs in the evening and the timing is good so we have more interest. We are having a retreat at the end of next week and will have around 40 to 50 members present, including staff, Board, club officials and volunteers. That will help us lay out the plan for the year so we are all on the same page. We will open that up to everyone who might have queries and all that. I think sometimes the problem with running federations here in Tonga is that those who are actually in the organisation do not fully understand things.

I always like to be transparent and not hide anything, so everyone can be on the same page.


IT:  2019 – you have two more years. With the silver at the Mini Games, what is your plan going forward into the Pacific Games?

SS:  I keep trying to push to Government that we need to have budgets, like Samoa and Fiji. MIA have been great, they have been assisting. But it would be nice to have an annual budget within the Ministry of Sports so that we can be taken care of. So I am going to push that again this year so that we can have something for next year.


IT: What about the outer islands, do you also have programme for them?

SS:  We went to the islands through the Kau Mai Tonga competition. That was a separate project of its own, involving the islands. So when that ended there was no other programme for them.

So last year we went back and ran tournaments for them. We ran a tournament in ‘Eua, Haa’api and Vava’u and then we asked them to put together national teams and come to our main competition last year in July.

Both  ‘Eua and Vava’u were able to come. Ha’apai, when we did the follow-up, being typical Ha’apai, they were waiting to be spoon-fed. When we were there we come back no netball. We did an unannounced visit and they were not running anything so we told them try again for next year.

The two teams that sent teams here we were able to pick one of the girl from them and she was in our national team, a girl from Vava’u. And I have to thank her family because they allowed her to stay with us here in Tonga. And that was a big step for a very young girl, to come and stay here and took part in our programme.

We were waiting for her to quit but you know she did all the programmes and sacrificed so much and showed commitment. She was with us all the way to Vanuatu and for me that was eye opening that if we provide the platform the girls will act.


IT:  When is the first competition this year? And what is your competition calendar like?

SS:  The first competition is at the end of February, beginning of March. We hope to round that up before we leave for New Zealand. So that is that and we have the second one midyear around June-July and then the final one in November. So the main tournaments are Te Tau Lava, Kau Mai Tonga and we have the Mo’onia Cup. It’s a good thing our clubs know that we have three competitions in the year.


IT:  The PPP programme with New Zealand, that goes to the communities?

SS:  What we are doing with that is that we are doing a trial and we are picking 10 primary schools throughout Tongatapu and we will trial it with them. If it works well with these 10 we will expand.

We are excited about the programme. Netball New Zealand have told us that they will have Irene van Dyke when we kick off here in Tonga. They will have her as the face of netball so it should be something big for Tonga with Irene van Dyke here.

My gratitude to all the parties involved, everybody who have helped out in moving Tonga Netball forward and especially to our non paid volunteers.


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