In a rare interview, Mystics netballer Elisapeta Toeava talks about her transformation from painfully shy and scared teenager, to one of the best wing attacks in the game, thanks to the unwavering belief of coach Helene Wilson. Suzanne McFadden reports.
The first time Helene Wilson saw a 17-year-old Elisapeta Toeava, she could have easily overlooked her. Not given her a second glance.
“This girl who went on court threw six balls away and was taken off again five minutes later. That was Peta,” Wilson recalls.
Toeava was playing in the national under-17 champs and Wilson was scouting for trialists for the New Zealand secondary schools side. But instead of flaws, Wilson could only see immense potential in the teenager.
“I knew straight away that she understood the game at a deeper level than those around her. She would throw balls into the shooters, but often they wouldn’t connect, because she could see things that other people didn’t even know could happen yet,” Wilson says.
“Yeah, I could see stuff,” Toeava adds, “but I don’t know if the other girls could read the play like I could.”
Race forward six years, and Toeava and Wilson are sitting in a café in west Auckland, before a Friday morning Mystics training session, remembering their first, uneasy encounter.
Toeava was too timid to speak to anyone at the netball trials. “I was quite nervous, especially coming from an Islander background. So I just sat there in the corner with two other island girls, wondering what was going on.”
Says Wilson: “I just remember that big smile and those big eyes. She wouldn’t say anything, just nod, then put her hands over her mouth and giggle.”
Her meekness didn’t transfer to the netball court. She made that New Zealand schools team – along with future Silver Ferns Temalisi Fakahokotau, Sam Sinclair and Malia Paseka – who then “smashed” Australia.
Still at school, Toeava was then chosen for the Mystics to play in the 2013 ANZ Championship. But she didn’t feel ready to make the leap up.
“It was all so new for me, and I was scared. I told my family, ‘I don’t want to do this’. They said, ‘You’re going to do it’,” she says.
Toeava listened. Born in Samoa as one of 10 siblings, including former All Black Isaia “Ice” Toeava, family means the world to her. Her famous brother, who debuted for the All Blacks at 19, also suffered from shyness.
After that first season, where she made a big impression, Toeava took a break from the game. It’s only now, after two seasons back with the Mystics, but with Wilson at the helm, that Toeava finally feels she belongs.
For the first time, she has a voice; she speaks up at trainings, and her team-mates listen. On court, she is the little general (her height is recorded at 1.61m – the smallest player in the ANZ Premiership – but she argues she’s been short-changed by 7cm).
She controls the play on attack with her exceptional vision and array of passes – pinpoint long bombs, or quick-fire bullets that slice through defenders. Shooters must always have their heads up if Toeava has the ball – she has an uncanny knack of drilling it to them from anywhere. She is a joy to watch.
Wilson calls Toeava “the best wing attack in the country right now” – based on statistics like feeding, and hitting the circle edge. A Silver Ferns triallist last year, she is clearly knocking on the door of New Zealand selection.
But part of 24-year-old Toeava’s journey this far has been building her self-esteem. It’s been a challenge that Wilson has taken on, and it’s still a work in progress.
“I always say to Leenee [Wilson], I’m not ready for the Silver Ferns,” Toeava says. “I tend to not believe in myself. When I went to the Silver Ferns trial, I felt like I wasn’t good enough to be there.”
Obviously, Wilson disagrees. “She’s probably the strongest player in New Zealand. She’s world-class.
“People have said she can’t run a yoyo test like others can. She’s not a runner, but that’s not her game strength. We work on her X-factor talents – her power, her strength and her change of direction.
“I’ve watched her sprint at full pace within three steps, then stop dead. That’s a real skill. Her ball skills are already there; she has an ability that I can’t teach.
“As a coach, I really challenge our system in New Zealand. Are we trying to develop clone players who all know how to run fast, or are we looking for diversity in skills? Peta adds a different dynamic to our game and that’s what we need in New Zealand right now.”
Early on, Wilson recognised that if Toeava was to reach her potential in netball – and if she was to reach Toeava – she would have to tap into the network of people the young woman trusted. People like her family, and Christina Reymer, Toeava’s history teacher and netball coach at McAuley High School in Otahuhu.
Wilson quickly learned that it was futile emailing the young player: “I was like ‘what’s email?” Toeava says.
“Normally I’d be too scared to say hello to our CEO. But this season we go into the office and say hi to everyone. It’s important that we actually know the people that work behind the scenes.”
– Elisapeta Toeava
Wilson asked Reymer about the best way to work with Peta. “I learned that calling her was best, to teach her that I was there to support her, and how netball operates,” says Wilson.
“And now we’re best friends!” Toeava says, and giggles behind her hands. “We’re real straight up with each other, real honest. That’s what I like about Helene – she tells you how it is. I like people like that.”
Another of Toeava’s strengths is her heart, Wilson explains. She takes joy from making others around her shine, like experienced Mystics shooters Maria Folau and Bailey Mes.
“That’s why she fires in those beautiful balls,” Wilson says. “But in the last couple of years, I’ve challenged her that it’s all fine and well to support others around her, but there comes a time when you have to stand up and shine too.
“That’s what we’re working on this year. When it gets tough, she has to take the lead. I’m proud that now she’s making really smart choices about when to play with that flair she has, or when to grind it out.”
That was evident in the Mystics’ last game, a victory over 2017 ANZ Premiership champions, the Steel. Toeava was named MVP. In the final minutes of the game, the wing attack fired a perfectly weighted lob from the centre-third to Folau, who arrived at the baseline just in time to gather in the ball.
“It was great decision-making by Peta. She’d beaten the defender; she’d earned the right to do that. It was just gold for a coach to watch,” Wilson says, like a proud mum.
As she released the ball, Toeava only felt apprehension. “I was like ‘Please Maria, just catch it!’” She loves the fleeting opportunities to play with Folau, now based in Sydney.
“Who wouldn’t love playing with Ria? Over the last few years, our connections have got stronger, we know exactly where each other will be. The downside is that we end up looking only for each other, and not playing with our team,” she says.
“In that last game, we got a growling from Helene: ‘You can’t just play by yourselves’. I was angry, but then I said ‘We can do this’, and the whole game changed.” The match went from a see-saw battle, to the Mystics taking the lead by 11, and holding on to win by five.
The victory came on the heels of the Mystics toppling the previously unbeaten Pulse. The northern side now share third spot with the Tactix halfway through the league.
“That’s the beautiful thing about the Mystics,” says Wilson. “I’ve seen a shift in Peta, and in the whole team, realising winning championships is about hard work and not always that flashy, flairy stuff that we might want to play. We’re starting to understand what it means to earn the right to do that.
“Another year down the track, we’re coming right, I reckon.”
Toeava feels it too. Everything feels better about the 2018 season. For the first time with the Mystics, she feels part of a wider team.
“I have a bond with the staff and our community now. Normally I’d be too scared to say hello to our CEO. But this season we go into the office and say hi to everyone. It’s important that we actually know the people that work behind the scenes,” she says.
She’s grown in confidence and maturity to now be able to speak to her team.
“I hate the word ‘leader’, but I just do what I can for the team. The main thing is I’m talking more at team talks, so it’s exciting,” Toeava says. “These girls are like my family now. I trust them.”
She also has a sharp sense of humour. She’s not afraid to take the mickey out of Wilson, mock-yawning when she feels the coach has talked too long. Four games into the season, she announced to the team: “Guys, I think I deserve a certificate”, as the only Mystics player to have played every minute of every game.
“That’s unusual for me. I’m usually two quarters and then off!” she laughs. Captain Anna Harrison made her the certificate.
Toeava finds her balance away from the court, with children. She works 20 hours a week at a south Auckland day-care centre. “It’s so different from netball. And I just love kids.”
She’s often seen at netball carrying one-year-old Isileli, the son of the team’s physio, Itabera Otumuli. “Peta is like his second mother,” Wilson says. “In fact, a lot of netball people thought Peta had had a baby in the off-season. He has a great big smile just like hers.”
Although she keeps her ambitions close to her chest, Toeava can’t hide that she wants to be a Silver Fern. “But it’s just working on my mindset. I still doubt myself,” she says.
Wilson continues to work on helping her erase those doubts. “She trusts me, so I just try to challenge her to do things that are hard. Getting her to talk about herself is a challenge. A lot of talented netballers don’t want to be coached by a coach like me, because I will challenge them to reach their potential. That means taking the hard road.”
Toeava is grateful, but it goes both ways. “I’ve also learned a lot from Peta – hopefully as much as she’s learned from me,” Wilson says. “She’s taught me to be a better coach without even realising it.”