Ferns throw lifeline to netball in the Pacific

Linda Vagana tried to hold back her tears when a cluster of little Samoan girls asked her when she’d return to their village again.

The former Silver Fern defender had gone to Samoa to help nurture netball back to good health in the once-proud netballing nation.

“I saw the disadvantages of not having the resources and the money, which was sad,” she says. “But I also saw so many enthusiastic little girls who really want to play netball.”

An Auckland-born Samoan, Vagana has a long history with the game in her ancestral home. She coached the national team to eighth place at the 2007 World Cup, having captained Samoa at the 2003 tournament where they climbed to sixth, their highest world ranking.

Since then they’ve been sliding down the international ladder. At this year’s World Cup, Samoa beat Fiji for 13th place; the only two Pacific Island nations at the tournament in Liverpool.  

The rapidly growing African nations have elbowed them out of the top 10.

“We really want to be in the top eight. But seeing where we sit now in international netball, it’s almost the same fight as our rugby boys have,” Vagana says.

None of the players in the Samoan team in Liverpool actually lived in Samoa. Netball in the island nation had stagnated.

But with the help of some impressively credentialled ambassadors - the likes of Vagana, Maria Folau, Wai Taumaunu and Irene van Dyk - Netball New Zealand are in trying to remedy that, and revive the sport in the rest of the Pacific.

Linda Vagana teaching Samoan schoolgirls netball skills. Photo: Netball Samoa. 

Vagana’s mission to Samoa earlier this month was through the NetGo programme, helping to get more kids in Pacific nations playing sport.

It’s delivered as part of the Pacific Sporting Partnership - a deal where the New Zealand government has doled out $10 million, shared between Netball NZ and NZ Rugby.

Netball NZ received $4 million from the pot to introduce NetGo to Fiji, Samoa, Tonga and the Cook Islands over five years. Now halfway through the initiative, Vanuatu has also asked to join the programme.

NetGo isn’t just about teaching young kids to play netball by creating new coaches. The other objective is to encourage healthy lifestyles in communities.

Ivan Harre, who manages the programme for Netball NZ, says Samoa had the netball history and the facilities, “but there was not a lot going on”.

“It was like the fire was laid, but they were waiting for someone to ignite it,” he says. “It just needed someone to drive it again.”

Vagana, who played 64 tests for the Silver Ferns, loves working with kids. She’s general manager of Duffy Books in Homes, which takes books to kids in remote or low socio-economic areas of New Zealand.

She was stunned when she went into primary schools throughout Samoa as a NetGo ambassador.  

“We added an extra four clinics because the demand was so high,” she says. “I was trying to hold back my tears when they said ‘when’s the next one?’

“It means a lot when the girls can see Samoans who’ve succeeded in netball, and they can see it’s achievable.”

Vagana's dream is to have a team of netballers from Samoa, representing Samoa.

“As much as we tried to do that for this World Cup, we just didn’t have the calibre of players locally. There hasn’t been enough work going on in Samoa,” she says.

“Since I coached the national team, it's kind of all come to a halt as far as the next group of high performance players coming through. But now I think it’s possible, given that we have enough young girls to invest in and create a pathway.”

There is a “huge drop off” of players in Samoa around the age of 15 “because they don’t see netball as something that will put food on the table for the family", Vagana says.

“But if we can show the parents you can make a career in netball, as well as studying, who knows what other experiences the girls can have?”

(The Australian government and Netball Australia recently launched a $A40m support programme for high performance netball in Samoa, Fiji, Tonga and Papua New Guinea. The Australians also came to the rescue of the Samoan national team in the lead-up to this year’s World Cup, bringing the team together in Sydney for an intensive training camp and lending high performance staff).

Wanting to show young Samoan girls where netball could take them, Vagana is helping to run a Samoa Netball Festival in Auckland in December for young girls of Samoan descent from U13 through to U19 level.

“We want teams representing villages and churches. We want to showcase the future of Samoan netball,” Vagana says. 

“There aren’t many high profile Samoan netball players at the moment. There are only two or three big names, like Maria Folau, with Samoan heritage,” says Vagana, who's pulling together a "small army" of former Samoan stars for the event. “This will also be about celebrating all that we’ve achieved.”

NetGo is "going gangbusters" in Fiji. Photo: Netball NZ

Netball NZ are thrilled with the growth they’ve seen through their ambassadors and top coach developers working with Netball Samoa in schools and clubs over the last two years.

As well as building up netball coaches through the NetGo programme, there's been a partnership with Maori public health team Hāpai Te Hauora to introduce their Fizz Free Whanau programme.

“The biggest health issue for kids in Samoa and the Cook Islands is fizzy drink,” Harre says. Samoa’s national age group competition is now known as the Fizz Free League.

In Fiji, NetGo is “going gangbusters”, Harre says.

“Anyone who wants to coach in schools must go through our NetGo programme, and more than 600 teachers have been accredited to coach so far,” he says.

Netball NZ also discovered there was no physical education programme for kids in their first four years at school in Fiji, so they developed a “fundamental movements skills” programme, now being delivered to 50 primary schools. Silver Ferns legend Irene van Dyk began the initiative in February.

The Cook Islands had no netball in schools. Another former Ferns shooter, Jodi Brown, who has Cook Island Maori ancestry, has been working with the schools and next month goes back to introduce the fundamental movements programme to teachers.

Tonga, the least advanced of the four countries with their sports systems, now have NetGo in 13 primary schools.

Next month, 35 US Peace Corps volunteers, who will spend a year teaching in remote Tongan communities, will be coached in the NetGo programme.

And NetGo has already sparked other projects. There’s a leadership course in Fiji so teenagers can learn how to run netball events. In Tonga, they’ve taken unemployed people who are passionate about netball, and given them a job delivering the PE programme to schools.

Harre is aware of not pushing netball too hard onto the people of the Pacific.

“We don’t want to do more than a country can cope with,” he says. “In Fiji it can be done quickly because they have a good base. In Tonga you have to move at a slower pace.”

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