Irene van Dyk can't wait to spread the netball gospel in Fiji. Photo: Andy Radka, Above Ground Level Photography

In Wairoa, they wore gumboots to hear Irene van Dyk teach them the basics of netball. In Fiji, they may be barefoot.

But the netballing legend doesn’t give two hoots about how they’ll turn up when she goes to Suva later this month, to kick-start a $10 million programme aimed at getting more kids playing sport in the Pacific Islands.

“I just want to see every five- and six-year-old in Fiji, girls and boys, playing netball,” she says.

Even after retiring from the Silver Ferns three years ago, van Dyk is still international netball’s most-recognised ambassador, so who better to take the first steps in launching NetGO, a programme to get more girls playing netball in the Pacific Islands?

The programme is being delivered as part of the Pacific Sporting Partnership (PSP) – a deal where the New Zealand government has doled out $10 million, shared between Netball New Zealand and New Zealand Rugby, to get more children in Pacific countries playing their sports. It will be introduced to Fiji, Samoa, Tonga and the Cook Islands over the next five years.

The overarching goal isn’t to create more rugby and netball stars like Joe Rokocoko and Vilimaina Davu. It’s to reduce “non-communicable diseases” in Pacific Island children – like asthma and diabetes – by getting them active.

“I’m so passionate about it, because I’m wholeheartedly convinced that every child should go through a programme like this,” van Dyk enthuses.

“It teaches them so much more than just the game of netball. They learn to work together in teams, to listen to their coaches and their peers, how to rehydrate their bodies when they come off the court. There are a lot of life skills in there.”

The PSP also aims to increase awareness among kids, and their parents, of the importance of physical exercise to improve health.

“It’s such a beautiful thing that Netball New Zealand are doing, and it’s fantastic that nations like Fiji are giving it a go.”

Irene van Dyk

A former school teacher, van Dyk will have no trouble delivering her message in Fiji, where the initial focus of NetGO is in primary schools. Van Dyk will initially mentor teachers from six schools around Suva.

It’s right up her alley, she says. As well as being a specialist coach for the Pulse in the ANZ Premiership this season, she also runs Netball New Zealand’s junior netball programme, Future Ferns, in the lower reaches of the North Island. NetGO is based on the Future Ferns programme, which teaches five- to 10-year-olds the basics of the game.

“I start with five- and six-year-olds, playing on a third of a court, with parents holding hula hoops for the goals. No one stands still; everyone touches the ball. It’s the way kids should start playing netball all around the world,” she says.

“Slowly but surely, we’re teaching kids to learn the rules without feeling threatened by the court being too big or the hoops too high. And no one gets stuck in a position because they’re tall, or short. Everyone gets to run, shoot, pass and catch.

“It’s such a beautiful thing that Netball New Zealand are doing, and it’s fantastic that nations like Fiji are giving it a go.”

And it’s not only for girls. NetGO will also be trialled in the curriculum of all Fijian schools’ phys-ed classes for five- to six-year-olds, with the backing of the Fijian Ministry of Education.

Netball receives $4 million of the total funding pot, to provide equipment – such as balls, bibs and whistles – facilities, referees – and training coaches like van Dyk across the four island nations. The programme will concentrate on training teachers and volunteers who haven’t coached before.

Training in Fiji continues next month when Netball New Zealand training manager Tania Karauria and national junior programme manager Nicola Jones will work with Fiji coach developers and 120 school teachers.

NNZ chief executive Jennie Wyllie says, while the partnership aims to support both girls and boys to be active, the netball initiative has a greater focus on empowering young Pacific Island women.

“Research has shown that if you invest in women, you invest in society,” Wyllie says. “The education, increased earnings and human development of young women has a direct impact upon their families.”

The other obvious goal is to help strengthen Pacific Island netball.

“The raw talent in Fijian netball is unbelievable,” van Dyk says. “A lot of them have never really been taught the real skills of the game, but we can now give them the tools to develop more players and cultivate those skills. Wouldn’t it be great if we could help get Fiji into the top six netball nations in the world?”

Right now, Fiji is ranked eighth. But their national under 21 side, the Baby Pearls, created history in making the top four at the World Youth Cup in Botswana this year – the highest international ranking for Fijian netball.

The game in the Cook Islands isn’t so healthy. The nation that finished fifth at the 1991 world championships has fallen off the international rankings ladder, having not played enough test matches in recent years.

In the Cooks, there will also be a focus on fixing Rarotonga’s outdoor netball courts, many of which have fallen into significant disrepair. The sport is struggling with venues, as the country’s only indoor sports stadium, the BlueSky Sports Arena, is closing down for major renovations, before the national police headquarters are tipped to move there.

The NetGo programme kicks off in Samoa and Tonga next year. NZ Rugby are currently piloting their work in Samoan schools.

As for van Dyk, she hopes to visit all of the Pacific nations in the programme, while continuing to grow young netball talent at home. She plans to return to Wellington High School next year to coach the junior girls team again (“We only won three games last year, but when they won, they celebrated like it was the 2003 world champs,” she laughs). She’s also widening her sporting net, as the manager of the Wellington Blaze women’s cricket team this summer, coached by her husband Christie.

Suzanne McFadden, the 2021 Voyager Media Awards Sports Journalist of the Year, founded LockerRoom, dedicated to women's sport.

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