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Strict eligibility rules are discouraging Pasifika netball players in New Zealand from representing their heritage.
ANZ Premiership teams were restricted to one international import in their squads, with Pacific Island internationals forced to compete alongside high-profile names from the likes of Africa and the Caribbean.
While at international level, players with dual eligibility cannot represent a different nation at consecutive World Cups.
Former Silver Ferns defender Linda Vagana spent eight years coaching Samoa and told The Kiwi Netball Show that, almost a decade on, the same challenges remained.
“It makes me angry really,” she said.
“I think the opportunities that we can offer girls right across the board at such a young age to have them, even at ANZ [Premiership] level for instance, girls have to basically make a decision right from there whether they will be on the New Zealand pathway or on a Pasifika pathway and it's hard.”
Under Netball New Zealand's selection policy, up to 60 players are selected into regional development squads, with all participants required to commit their international allegiance to the Silver Ferns.
Vagana, who also captained Samoa at the 2003 World Netball Championships, said committing to the New Zealand pathway at a young age had not helped Pasifika girls who could potentially represent their country of heritage.
“When you're trying to improve sport in the Pacific or within Oceania, and I think New Zealand Netball has a lot to play with this and have often been stuck in both camps trying to fight the good fight, but it's getting more difficult.”
She was also frustrated to see a lack of Pasifika representation coming through the grades.
“I see at grassroots level a whole lot of girls who could potentially be in some form of a training camp or on that pathway to the ANZ [Premiership] and I guess that's what the Beko League is for, but even at that stage they have to decide from what I understand that they're ready to jump on the New Zealand pathway as opposed to anyone else."
“So we are still missing out on players and that's something that frustrates me when I hear that there are players out there and they're not necessarily wanting to play in the Beko League because they have to make sure that they're on the netball New Zealand pathway.”
Northern Mystics midcourter Fa'amu Ioane was born in Samoa but moved to New Zealand 16 years ago, and was part of New Zealand's Under 21s squad that went on to claim the World Youth Cup in 2017.
The 24-year-old admitted wearing the black dress is the goal, but said Pasifika players would jump at the opportunity to represent their culture if it didn't affect their chances of national and domestic selection.
“I feel like the main thing that hinders Pacific Island players is that when we don't make that [Silver Ferns] squad, but then we would love to go play for our country now, but there's a restriction,” she said.
“Because if we play for them we have to stand down for four years, which will also put a restriction on us playing in the ANZ competition. If we do come back and play ANZ comp we will be down as an import player.”
Former Samoa international Julianna Naoupu signed to play for the Northern Stars in this year's ANZ Premiership after completing a four year international stand-down, although the experienced shooter, 30, is expecting her first baby in December and was unable to make it back out on court.
After seven years playing in the Trans-Tasman netball competition, the former Silver Ferns squad member represented Samoa at the 2015 World Cup after being released by the Canterbury Tactix.
Fa'amu Ioane said it was a conversation Pasifika players have regularly.
Staying on the New Zealand pathway meant more opportunities and better development as a player, but she said playing for Samoa would mean just as much as it would to represent for New Zealand.
“If there was no restriction and you were able to go and play for your country, come back and still have the opportunity to play for the Ferns and trial for New Zealand, I would most definitely go and play and represent Samoa, and I feel like that's the [case] for most Pacific Island players as well,” she said.
“That adds another restriction for why most of us Pacific Island players don't go back to play for our country [of heritage] unless we're retired, [but] my culture and my family is part of who I am and it's very important to me, so to be able to represent Samoa would mean everything.”
Ioane said players were yearning to represent their culture and had put forward ideas to the New Zealand Netball Players Association to fill that void, including a Maori and Pasifika team to play in New Zealand's Super Club tournament.
“We talked about it a while back when the Super Club competition first started with the ANZ Premiership, with teams from England and Australia," she said.
“We had put forward to our player association and we asked if we could put through a Pasifika and Maori team to give players the opportunity...but they came back and said no that won't happen.”
While New Zealand and Australia dominate the international game their Pacific neighbours are struggling just to be competitive.
The Cook Islands climbed to 14th in the world rankings after winning gold at last year's Pacific Games but have not qualified for a World Cup since 2007.
Samoa and Fiji played off for 13th place at last year's World Cup in Liverpool but have since slipped to 16th and 17th in the world, with Tonga ranked 19th and Papua New Guinea a distant 34th.
Former Australian captain Vicki Wilson coached Fiji for four years, including appearances at the 2018 Commonwealth Games and 2019 World Cup.
She said there was no shortage of talent in the Pacific but local players are lacking the exposure to top level competitions like the ANZ Premiership and Suncorp Super Netball.
“That's what I'd like to see, and it would be great if something like that could happen for the girls in the Pacific Islands.”
Wilson guided the Fiji Under 21s to a historic fourth place finish at the 2017 World Youth Cup but said New Zealand's strict eligibility rules prevented her from being able to select a full-strength squad.
"We had a number of players who we were very keen to select in our Under 21s side and [they] would have strengthened it tremendously, but they chose to be part of the New Zealand pathway," she said.
“You're caught between a rock and a hard place because the game is only as strong as its international neighbour and we need a strengthened Pacific to ensure that we're competitive internationally.”
With African nations improving rapidly on the international stage, Wilson said a loosening of the eligibility rules could help Pacific Island nations close the gap.
“If we can utilise those young kids who are in a system, whether it be Australia or New Zealand, and if they're not going to make a team, if they can come into a representative team, into a national team in the Pacific it would make such a difference,” she said.
“Looking at some of the players that I had representing Fiji, I know if they ever had that opportunity a couple of them could certainly hold their own whether it be in an ANZ Premiership or Suncorp Super Netball, that with hard training and dedication, they could be very much a valued member of one of those elite teams.”
Netball New Zealand's head of high-performance, Keir Hanson, said the one import rule in the ANZ Premiership reflects the fact that the competition is designed as a pathway for players to represent the Silver Ferns.
“I think historically when there's a lot of imports, there's a risk of blocking the pathway of players to international level within New Zealand,” he said.
“So it's really just to try and protect that whilst also enabling ineligible players who are either residents or citizens of New Zealand to play, but also players who might come from overseas and add some real value to the competition.”
But mindful of the imbalance faced by the Pacific Island nations, a new initiative has been set up to help prioritise Pasifika players for selection.
“Whereby New Zealand residents or citizen ineligible players are prioritised for payment out of our player payment pool ahead of players who are coming from overseas who might be English or Australian or whatever,” he said.
“One of the purposes of that was to support our teams to prioritise Pasifika players, if they were the right fit for those ineligible spots.”
Keir Hanson says only two of the ANZ Premiership's six import slots were utilised this season but Netball New Zealand would not rule reviewing the restrictions in future.
Netball New Zealand confirmed ANZ's import rule was built around the INF and while there are a number of Pasifika players that could potentially represent their country of heritage, Hanson doesn't believe loosening eligibility rules is the answer.”.
SOURCE: RNZ PACIFIC/PACNEWS
Pacific Islands News Association
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International News Safety Institute (INSI)
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