Giant men’s goal shoot Junior Levi can’t wait to play “the greatest defender in history” – Casey Kopua – in a ground-breaking netball clash this week, he tells Suzanne McFadden. 

It will be a game for the ages – the Silver Ferns women versus the best of New Zealand men’s netballers. In the first ever international series where women and men have played on the same court.

So surely Silver Ferns centurion Casey Kopua, about to play in her fourth World Cup, is looking forward to this momentous clash?

“Yes and no,” she says, smiling. “They are very good. And it’s highly likely they will win.”

And what happens if they do, in fact, win?

Well, for one, it will shoot the profile of men’s netball through the roof. They are a sport who’ve struggled for decades to be recognised – out on their own, given the cold shoulder by the world netball body – and who are trying to boost their professional status.

The Silver Ferns will take whatever they can from the game in Auckland on Thursday – part of the Cadbury Series which serves as a World Cup warm-up for the Ferns and the Fiji Pearls (the fourth team are the All Stars, the next tier of top Kiwi women’s players).

Win or lose to this men’s invitational side, it will be far from a waste of the Ferns’ time.

They know what they’re up against. For years, the Ferns – and franchise teams around the country – have played against the men in the build-up to crucial competitions, but it’s traditionally been behind closed doors.

The men play a fast, physical and athletic brand of netball which Kopua says reflects “patches of many different styles” from the women’s game.

Michelle Vaeau, co-coach of the NZ Men, describes it best. “We have Pasifika’s flair, the Caribbean’s athleticism, Australia’s man-to-man defence and England’s tricks”.

All styles of netball the Ferns will come up against in Liverpool in just over two weeks’ time.

“Every training match we’ve played against the men, they win,” Kopua says. 

“But we just want to bring our game to them, and take them on. Their netball is fast, explosive and different. They’re taller, they jump higher. Some of them are stronger.

“It’s about acknowledging that, but saying ‘right, this is what we’re going to do’, and take it to them.”

Kopua is likely to meet her match in Junior Levi, the Auckland-born Samoan goal shoot who’s played most of his netball in Australia – and even captained the Australian men’s open side.

Levi is 2.18m tall (or 7ft 2in); Kopua is 1.88m.  

For the 29-year-old Levi, who works as a project manager in infrastructure and telecommunications in Queensland, playing against Kopua is like a dream come true.

“In my opinion, Casey is the greatest defender in netball history,” Levi says. “She moves like a men’s netballer, with her athleticism and commitment to go for balls most players wouldn’t think about.

“My job is to play really well against her, and give it my all. Now days she’s coming up against similar tall shooters, who are probably not as mobile as me.

“At the end of the day, this is a great opportunity for the Ferns to look at what they need to work on before they go [to Liverpool]. So I will give Casey 100 per cent, to help her at the World Cup.”

Levi knows the public will expect him to simply catch high lobs and pop the ball into the net. But he promises to show a much wider range of “skills, flair and finesse” during the series.

Junior Levi stood down from the Australian men’s netball team last year in the hope he could play for his homeland, New Zealand. Photo: Michael Bradley Photography.

Silver Ferns coach Noeline Taurua wanted the best challenge for the Ferns in their final run-up to Liverpool, and asked to play a strong men’s side. She doesn’t want the men to curb their energy and enthusiasm.

“I’ve talked to Noeline a couple of times, and there’s been no talk of wanting us to slow our game down,” says Vaeau. “I can’t imagine her asking Australia or England to do the same. She doesn’t want us to alter our game; she wants us to play hard.”

There are rules they have agreed to, though. You’ll see no basketball-style lay-ups from the tall shooters, and no goal-tending at the opposite goal.

“What’s interesting for us as coaches is getting our players’ heads around the large crowds, television cameras and media attention. They’re not used to that,” says Vaeau.

Not to be outdone, the reigning world netball champions, the Australian Diamonds, will play against the New South Wales men’s team later this week.

The coach of the NSW men is former Silver Fern shooter Teresa Tairi. She says the inclusion of a men’s side in this international series is a “very important platform for men’s netball – not only in New Zealand but across the world.

“I believe there’s room for both the women’s and men’s games to co-exist. Male-dominated sports have proven that by lifting the women’s game. So how the New Zealand Men approach this series is critical to not only help showcase the talent, but also to hopefully change the ideals and values of the International Netball Federation.”

Last year, the INF reviewed its stance on male participation in the game, and maintained that its “primary focus at international level would remain ‘female only netball’ – to preserve netball’s high level of female participation, and address “the existing global inequity in sport”.

Vaeau believes the opportunity will show a global audience what level men’s netball is really at.   

“We are a professionally-run sport, we’re just not paid professionally yet. We are self-funded sport, but we’re hoping to catch the attention of a few key sponsors,” she says.

“It will also help to break stereotypes, that we just rock up and play netball, and a coach like me just rocks up and throws the bibs out. So much effort goes into our sport.”

Vaeau is sharing the coaching duties with David Pala’amu, who has been a stalwart of both the men’s and women’s games. President of the NZ Men’s and Mixed Netball Association, he’s also been a top international umpire in women’s netball, officiating at World Cups.

Not only is this game a first at bringing together our best men’s and women’s netballers in an international series, Vaeau is the first transgender coach of a New Zealand sports team.

“I’ve been involved in netball for decades, but you have no idea how excited I am to be part of a world first,” she says.

“I’m representing the transgender community, the rainbow community and Pasifika. The support I’ve received and the messages I’ve had, have brought me to tears – it’s so beautiful.

“We’ve been reflecting on how grateful we are to have this opportunity. In the past, we’ve played [women’s teams], then we’ve left – there’s been no interaction. But the All Stars team have just arrived, and the guys and girls are mixing with each other. It’s fantastic.”

Levi, who started playing netball seven years ago when netball “waltzed into my life during my university years”, says he’s humbled by the opportunity to play on a much larger stage.

“Given the sensitivity around my selection [as an Australian netballer], and the sensitivity of what’s going on in the background right now, I’m extremely humbled to have this opportunity to be part of a world-leading, ground-breaking moment in netball, and to be able to give back,” he says.

There’s a lot of sensitivity around right now, especially regarding Silver Fern Maria Folau. The seasoned shooter will join the team in Auckland today, after her husband Israel Folau’s controversial appeal for funds to help in his legal fight against Rugby Australia was shut down by GoFundMe.

While Netball Australia and Netball South Australia issued statements after the Adelaide Thunderbirds goal shoot re-posted her husband’s social media plea for financial support – saying they could not endorse her re-posting, but would not take any action against her – Netball NZ have yet to make any comment on their star shooter.

If they do, it’s likely to come today, once Folau is in camp.

When asked about the issue, the NZ Men’s side said that they were “simply focusing on our own team, and the week ahead”.

The men will first make history playing the Fijian women at Pulman Park, Papakura, tomorrow night, while the Silver Ferns play the All Stars. The series ends with a final between the top two sides on Saturday.  

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

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