Speedy Poi inspires sisters nipping at her heels
Flashing through netball's ranks to the lofty heights of the Tactix and the Silver Ferns, Kimiora Poi is also motivating the two sisters following behind her.
At a campsite in one of the most dazzling spots in the country - the East Coast’s Tokomaru Bay - the three Poi sisters are working up a sweat.
The eldest of the siblings, Kimiora, is leading the post-Christmas workout in unrelenting 30-degree heat.
The scene is far removed from the grey English winter she’s headed to, having just been recalled into the Silver Ferns.
Grabbing the chance with both hands to prove herself again, the 22-year-old Tactix centre turned the annual Tokomaru family holiday into a kind of training camp. As one of the fastest and fittest Silver Ferns, you can imagine there was a ‘take no prisoners’ attitude.
For her training partners, Jade and Ashleigh Poi, there was something more to it. After all, they must use their sister as a benchmark in their own budding netball careers.
“Actually,” says Kimiora, “they’re aiming to go past me.”
Each summer, when Poi returns home from Christchurch to Hawkes Bay, she convinces her sisters to train with her.
“They hate it when they’re tired and want to stop, and I’m like ‘No, you have to keep going’. Then the next morning, they’re asking me: ‘What’s the training today?’” Poi laughs.
All three sisters are midcourters, and they’ve never had the chance to play together on court.
The Poi girls grew up in the small settlement of Tikitiki, two hours’ drive north of Gisborne. Their farmhouse was at the end of a 10km gravel road.
“It was really isolated. The nearest neighbour was a few kilometres away,” says Poi, who’s of Ngāti Porou descent.
Their mum, Roanne, was the principal of the tiny Tikitiki School, which averaged around 25 pupils. It was there the girls began playing netball - and almost every other sport going - combining with a neighbouring school to make up team numbers.
But the sisters were always at different stages. Now, as their netball careers blossom beyond the school courts, their chances of playing together grow stronger.
Jade, who’s 20, has just made the Waikato Bay of Plenty Beko squad, having come back from a ruptured ACL suffered in her final year at school.
Teenager Ashleigh is in her last year at Napier Girls’ High, and is already taller than her two sisters. She was part of the Aotearoa Maori secondary school team who won the international schoolgirls tournament last year.
(They have a brother too, 25-year-old Morgan, who's pursuing his own sporting career playing rugby for the Wellington Lions in the Mitre 10 Cup).
But Kimiora continues to lead the way for the whanau. The compact, zippy and shrewd centre has become an expert at grabbing opportunities and making the most of them.
Growing up, Poi had no inkling she would end up where she is now.
“I didn’t take netball seriously until I was a senior at high school,” she says. The family moved to Hawkes Bay so the girls could go to Napier Girls' High.
“I was playing rep basketball and netball, and it wasn’t until Year 12 when I made the [national] secondary school trials, that I thought ‘I could give this a go’. And I’ve just taken every year as it comes after that.”
As soon as she headed to Wellington in 2016 - to study criminology and Maori at Victoria University – Poi made the Central Manawa Beko side; they won the title in her second year. That same year Poi went to Botswana with the New Zealand U21 side and won the World Youth Cup.
Then she got a call from Tactix coach Maryanne Delaney-Hoshek, inviting her to move south for the 2018 ANZ Premiership season.
Poi cried. But they weren’t tears of joy.
“I was scared. The thought of going to the Tactix had never even crossed my mind. I had it in my head that I was going to be a training partner for the Pulse,” she admits.
But she took up the offer, settled in with family friends on the outskirts of Christchurch, and surprised herself by becoming the starting centre for the Tactix.
2018 would be her break-out season – chosen in the Silver Ferns development squad, New Zealand A and the Fast5 Ferns, who won the World Series in Melbourne. Her move to the mainland proved to be a smart one.
Recognised for her speed, precision and flair, Poi then made her debut for the Silver Ferns in January 2019, against England in the Northern Quad Series.
(The numbers prove she's quick. At the last Silver Ferns group fitness testing, Poi was in the top three athletes for both the 5m and 10m speed tests, and she posted the fastest time in the crucifix test, measured over multiple changes of direction).
Although she had a second stand-out season with the Tactix, Poi didn’t make the cut for the Ferns’ World Cup side.
But another opportunity popped up, when she was asked to finish the Super Netball season for the Collingwood Magpies in Melbourne. She came in to replace the injured Madi Browne, but ended up as the side’s starting wing attack when Diamonds star Kelsey Browne bizarrely suffered the same knee injury as her elder sister.
Poi found the sudden move to Australia “pretty tough… being away from home, not knowing any of the girls,” she says.
“I flew in on a Thursday, we travelled and played on the Saturday, where I got thrown on the court and didn’t even know the names of the girls in my team.”
But she came to love the unique experience, and the opportunity to work on her wing attack game. So does she want to play there again? “No. I like centre,” she answers instantly. “But the more I trained there, the more comfortable I got.”
She was a little taken aback to get the recall to the Silver Ferns for the Nations Cup in England at the start of this year. She felt she hadn’t really fired at Super Club, where Dame Noeline Taurua and her national selectors were scanning to fill the gaps left by unavailable world champion Ferns, like midcourt lynchpin Laura Langman.
But Poi shone whenever she got on court in England – her injection in the second half of the final against Jamaica was key to their victory.
"Just being named in that UK tour made me think, 'Yeah, maybe I am doing something right'. I wanted to use that tour to prove myself, because I knew there were people who thought I shouldn’t be there. I just want to continue to prove myself this year."
Jane Watson, Poi’s captain at the Tactix and Silver Ferns team-mate, says it was “awesome” having the young centre in England, standing up in an unfamiliar Ferns side and making a difference.
“She’s definitely got so much potential. She’s so fast, she has a netball head, and her hops are amazing,” Watson says. “Her consistency is really coming through now.
“Kimi is very honest, she’s cute and tiny… She’s terrible at TikToks, and she loves karaoke. I just love her!”
Watson also loves having two current Ferns alongside her at the Tactix this ANZ Premiership season, with shooter Te Paea Selby-Rickit transferring from the Steel. “It means it’s not just me trying to raise up the standard. I have support around me, which is awesome,” she says.
Sorely impacted by injuries last year, the Tactix have one of their strongest line-ups in memory for the 2020 season starting this weekend.
Selby-Rickit joins Ellie Bird in the shooting circle; Erikana Pedersen is back from injury to partner Poi in the midcourt; and dynamic defender Temalisi Fakahokotau is fit and firing, returning from a full year out after knee surgery, to take her rightful place next to Watson.
Poi has one motivation: “I want the Tactix to win.
“Our combinations are starting to settle now. We had a couple of pre-season games in Queenstown, against Pulse and Steel, and our Pulse game was quite bad really. But we’ve stepped up since then.”
This season, the Tactix have chosen to put their weight behind the ‘All Right?’ campaign, set up after the 2013 Christchurch earthquake to help people become more aware of their mental health and wellbeing. It’s something Poi can relate to.
“Playing sport takes its toll on you mentally - all the pressure put on you, and the pressure you put on yourself,” she says. “I think it’s important to raise awareness within sport. I put heaps of pressure on myself.
“But this year, I’ve refocused my mindset - to not worry about things as much, and just let it go.
“I feel like it’s actually helping. I feel more free when I’m on court, and I don’t worry too much.”
She also has better balance in her life, returning to her studies after a year off. “Last year I did nothing outside netball and I got really bored. It’s good to have something to fill my time.”
She’s resumed with a criminology paper this semester. “I’d like to go into the police force and work my way up through the ranks,” she says.
“But first I’ll see where netball takes me.”
* The Tactix open the ANZ Premiership season on Sunday playing the defending champs, the Pulse, in Blenheim. All ANZ Premiership games - to be played on Sundays and Monday nights - will be shown live on Sky Sport 3 and streamed on Sky Sport Now.