It may not have been an event as grand as the Netball World Cup, or be seen as prestigious as, say, the Constellation Cup, but the PacificAus Sports Netball Series on the Gold Coast last week delivered a competition worthy of greater international attention.
Four nations destined for the 2023 Netball World Cup in Cape Town – Malawi, Tonga, Fiji and Singapore – along with four countries from the Africa and Oceania regions who wished they were going – Zambia, Samoa, Kenya and Papua New Guinea – produced a series of such quality that it has the potential to sit respectfully underneath the pinnacle event, and garner some much needed respect for a sport desperate for further flavour in the process.
Tonga Tala took out their third consecutive PacificAus Series title in a little over 13 months, winning all six matches in six days, with no side getting within an even dozen of netball’s newest darlings.
Crowds at the Gold Coast Sports and Leisure Centre may have been small, but the colour and song across the week certainly followed the carnival-style atmosphere the World Cup and Commonwealth Games netball events deliver.
World Netball, take note.
From the organised chaos of the Malawi and Zambia clash, which culminated in the Copper Queens winning against their African neighbours for the first time since 2018, to Tonga only losing two quarters all tournament, the PacificAus Series delivered in spades.
With only one Samoan in the side from that which took part in the Oceania Qualifiers last July, it was always going to be a tough ask. Coach Frances Solia, a former Samoan captain herself, said there were many goals set by the side, but the Series was part of a long-term plan looking towards the 2026 Commonwealth Game and 2027 Netball World Cup in Sydney.
Zambia and Kenya delighted the crowds all week, winning seven matches between them. Zambia’s 12-goal loss to Tonga was the closest any side was allowed. Kenya played well above their World Ranking of 35, and should climb slightly in the next World Ranking update.
Admittedly shaky in their opening match, Singapore grew in parts, but will need to improve quickly ahead of the World Cup. Their average losing margin was worse than Papua New Guinea’s (who didn’t win a match), courtesy of their 45-goal drubbing by the eventual winners.
Fiji Pearls will be disappointed to have been so close to Malawi (54-48) and Samoa (64-55) in their opening two matches, but more so to have run out of steam in the playoff against Zambia, with the match wrestled from their grasp 56-55 in the final minutes.
Champions Tonga simply took off from where they left after the PacificAus Series last October, coming together from eight cities to produce six performances worthy of their World number seven ranking, and by an average winning margin of just over 23 goals.
In a first half worthy of a World Cup final, Tonga took an early 7-3 break, before Malawi found their groove, leveling momentarily. Star goaler Uneeq Palavi continued her commanding role in the goal circle, scoring all 12 of Tala’s first quarter goals.
The Queens rattled home the first four of the second term, with Tonga taking four minutes to score.
Goal attack Marie Hansen didn’t register her first goal until there was less than three minutes to half time, with Tonga taking the slimmest of leads (23-22) to the main break.
From there, the week-long favorites took it to another level. A nine-nil run early in the third quarter was enough to break away from the Queens, creating a distance that Malawi could never reel in, as Kelea Iongi hassled mistakes out of Sindi Simtowe and Jane Chimaliro.
While the Queens held Tonga to their lowest score not only of this event, but in 17 matches across the three PacificAus Series they’ve competed in, it simply wasn’t enough.
Tala ran out 54-41 winners to claim a third successive PacificAus Sports title.
Replay every match of the 2023 PacificAus Sports Series.
A special coin
Why use an Australian coin when you have a far more impressive one on hand? The coin used throughout the tournament to determine the first centre pass of each match was brought all the way from Africa.
Third country for Tuivaiti
Cat Tuivaiti was selected among the squad of 15 for Tonga, taking part in matches across the first three days against Kenya and Zambia, ahead of the Gold Coast Titans opening match of the 2023 Sapphire Series. It was Tuivatiti’s third international team after debuting for Samoa in 2005 (playing 30 Tests) and New Zealand (24 Tests) in 2011.
Singapore’s lucky duck
While not an official team mascot, a toy duck was spied on the bench during Singapore’s final match. The duck was dubbed ‘lucky’ by the team, with the unnamed owner encouraged to bring it along to matches. Wonder if it will make the trip to Cape Town?
Songs from home
Throughout the week, the stadium was filled with familiar songs and music from each of the countries. Whether teams were walking onto court or during each break in play, athletes and the crowd were able to enjoy a little taste of home.
As the finals were played, the African nations joined the stadium crowd to soak up the last bits of action and cheer on their compatriots. Kenya were the first and provided raucous support for Zambia. Both groups then stayed to support Malawi in their hard-fought final. Samoa, to their credit, were also in the stands supporting Tonga.
Pepes say farewell
Papua New Guinea’s playoff match against Singapore marked the final international matches for former national captains Neritha Adula and Jacklyn Lahari. Both represented Papua New Guinea at Singapore’s Nations Cup, the Pacific Games, previous PacificAus Sports Series and Netball World Cup Qualifiers.
Kenya goaler Beatrice Kabucho was the most prolific goaler for the Series, finishing with 294/341 at 86% accuracy, just three goals more than Tongan Uneeq Palavi. The 26-year old Kabucho should catch the eye of some global coaches, with her strength in the air and willingness to shoot from almost anywhere in the circle.
Takondwa Lwazi marshalled the Malawi Queens side from the middle of (and all over) the court. Debuting at the 2014 Commonwealth Games, Lwazi will be pivotal to the Queens’ World Cup hopes come July, where they should re-gain the services of Mwai Kumwenda and Joyce Mvula which will only strengthen the team.
Memory Musonda was a pillar in defence for Zambia across the series. Clean, but a tight competitor, saw Musonda not only take significant possession, but also put doubt in opposition attackers to put the ball anywhere near her. Teammate Diana Banda, the 43-year old shooter who debuted at the 1999 Netball World Cup, and is the only Zambian to have played at two World Cups, held strong with 104/110 at 95% accuracy.
Hulita Veve (Tonga) and Abigail Latu-Meafou (Samoa) led their respective countries brilliantly all week and were appropriately rewarded by being named joint Players of the Tournament.
Ultimately, this series might be the last of the current partnership with Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the first of which ran in Queensland in September 2021 with a mini-series between three Queensland sides and a combined PacificAus Sports team.
For the event to have grown across its four iterations, to the latest which has seen five-Top 20 nations compete from three Regions – a quality usually only seen at a Commonwealth Games, where qualification is reserved for those ranked inside the Top 12 – creates not only expectation, but clear opportunity as to what it, or a similar competition, could deliver.
Calendar-wise, Tonga and Fiji will next meet quite soon, on Friday July 28 – Day 1 of the 2023 Netball World Cup in Cape Town, where both countries have been drawn into Pool A.
Malawi (Pool B) and Singapore (Pool D) will meet them there, with potential clashes in Preliminary Stage Two which starts from August 1.
For the other four countries, they’ll head back home to assess and plan for the next 12 months.
Clearly there is a tier of netball countries desperate for greater exposure and international competition. And opportunities must be found outside of the ones their respective Region affords – a means to put more netball nations on a pedestal.
It’s a matter of finding those who are able to transform the international space into a more significant asset than it is currently restricted to.