It’s the talk of the netball premiership season – the invisible thread connecting Mystics’ midcourt maestro Peta Toeava and sharp shooter Grace Nweke. Suzanne McFadden sits down with them to find out the secret that’s helped lift them to top of the table.
When you watch them on the court, you’d swear the connection between Mystics attackers Grace Nweke and Peta Toeava is telepathic.
Toeava fires in one of her no-look bullet passes, and Nweke puts up her long levers and the fast-rising ball sticks to her hands.
Or Toeava, with her exceptional vision and explosive speed, bombs it in from the middle third of the court. And the 1.93m Nweke – sandwiched between two defenders – somehow manages to leap up and snatch it when it looks certain to fly into the stands.
But what you don’t see is that they communicate with a secret language.
It could be a flicker of the eyes, a slight nod of the head, a random signal with the hand. Whatever their cues, they’re not giving them away.
“It feels easy,” says Nweke, still 19, but the top shooter in the ANZ Premiership. “But obviously we work hard and we’ve grown our connection over time. And I know the cues she gives me on court; I know what she wants from me.
“It looks like it comes naturally – and to an extent, it does. But we put in a lot of work in the week leading into the game as to what our game plan is. And obviously we know how each other plays now [after three seasons together] and we play to our strengths.”
Toeava, at 27 now a senior player in the league-leading Mystics, develops the cues at their training sessions.
“That’s where I like to experiment with some passes, or stuff that I see,” she says. “At first, Grace won’t catch it. But we know it’s there.
“So I’ll leave it and go back to what we’re good at. Then probably at the next training, I’ll try it again – and she gets a hand to it, probably won’t catch it. But she definitely knows it’s coming.
“And then during a game, it’s like, ‘Okay, yeah, it’s on’. And she catches it. That trust is there, and it’s so good.”
“It’s crazy,” Nweke chimes in. “Some of them I’m surprised I’m catching. I genuinely think it’s luck sometimes, but because we practice, it must just be that we know it’s going to work.
“But sometimes I’m actually shocked at some of the balls I manage to catch. And I’m just glad that I do, because I don’t want to drop them. There’s definitely like ‘Oh thank goodness I caught that’, and I’m sure she’s happy that it landed.”
Toeava fires one of her bullets back: “Yeah, I’m happy that she catches those, otherwise it’s a loss against my name.”
Nweke: “Is it my loss, or your loss?”
Toeava: “I’m pretty sure it’s mine.”
Nweke: “And I get the evil eyes too, if I don’t catch them.”
Toeava: “All out of love, eh?”
Nweke: “SO much love.”
It’s love and respect first kindled three seasons ago, when Mystics head coach Helene Wilson gradually introduced Nweke, a shy 17-year-old Avondale College student, to the intensity of championship netball.
Last season, she suddenly found herself leading the Mystics shooting circle, while Silver Fern Bailey Mes was recovering from knee surgery.
And in 2021, Nweke is dominating that circle, averaging 53 goals a game. Some teams have struggled to score that many.
She and Toeava try to make time at either end of a training session to work on a few passes – for Toeava, the placement, and for Nweke getting her hands on the ball.
“Even if it’s just two minutes, or 10 passes, just to keep that connection growing,” Nweke says.
“Before a game, I’m not sure if people notice, but me and Pets will always go together during the warm-up. She’ll fire in some bullets, just for me to get used to them and for her to practise her placement. Then we’re prepared for what’s coming in the game.”
Toeava, who shaved her head last week in support of her aunty who was diagnosed with cancer, leads the league statistics for feeds into the goal circle – 489 of them in 11 games.
“It’s easy when you have someone like Grace at the back,” she says. But in the same breath, she gives kudos to those Mystics around them at the shooting circle – goal attack Mes and centre Taylor Earle.
“I feel like people only look at me and Grace, and they don’t see the work that Bailey and Tays do around the outside. People don’t actually know how much work they do to get our connection going.”
Mes is playing the role of a third feeder this season, leaving Nweke with the lion’s share of shots. The teenager has been successful 589 of 655 attempts – that’s 90 percent accuracy.
In their first win over the neighbouring Stars, Nweke scored 60 of the Mystics’ 63 goals (Mes added the other three from her three attempts).
Nweke is continually perfecting her shooting, she says, but she’s yet to define her style.
“Sometimes I feel like I put it up and hope for the best,” she laughs. “But I know if I take my time and don’t rush it, it will go in. And I back myself with the rebounds as well.
“This season I’ve been working on really being intentional about feeling my shot, taking my time and following through. And it’s really paid off. I’m really happy with it.”
Nweke, who wore the Silver Ferns black dress for the first time last year, has no idea how many shots she would put up in practice during a week.
“She hardly does any, to be honest,” Toeava chips in, grinning.
“I don’t count them, but it’s quite a few,” Nweke bounces back. “It’s my job to get them in, so I do as much as I can, so it becomes a habit, it becomes natural.”
This is Toeava’s sixth season with the Mystics. She also made her debut when she was at high school in 2013, but after a couple of seasons out of the game, she’s been a regular fixture in the team since 2017.
And she’s seeing something different in the 2021 team.
“I feel like us girls are really close this season, and we now have that relationship where anything that’s said on court stays on court,” the one-cap Silver Fern says. “We’ve set the team values from the beginning, so when we’re on court, it’s about the performance that we need from everyone – there’s no babying or beating around the bush.
“Off court, we know we love each other and we will always have each other’s backs.”
It starts, Toeava says, with the Mystics’ first-time captain, Sulu Fitzpatrick.
“We’re so happy to have Sulu as our captain this year. She looks after us. She’s really good at connecting everyone. The communication between her and the coaches is great,” she says.
Both Toeava and Nweke agree having Australian Rob Wright in the mix this season as assistant coach is also making a difference.
“I feel like I connect with him really well, because he’s very direct and I respond to that,” Toeava says. “If I’m not training well, he’ll say it how it is. And something in me clicks and I’m like, ‘I need to get back on’. If I come up with excuses, he’s like ‘Stop making up excuses’.”
Nweke reckons she has a “up and down relationship” with Wright, who coached the New South Wales Swifts to two grand finals back in the trans-Tasman ANZ Championship.
“There’s a lot of banter. Off-court, we all crack jokes and he’s very funny. But when it comes to the on-court stuff, he knows what to do so we can get the job done,” she says.
Away from the court, both Nweke and Toeava are happy to have responsibilities far from netball.
Both are from big families. Born in Samoa, Toeava is one of 10 siblings (including former All Black Isaia Toeava). Nweke, whose Nigerian parents moved here from South Korea before she was born, is one of six kids – and one of two sets of twins.
She’s studying part-time at the University of Auckland towards a bachelor of commerce, majoring in information systems and economics. “It was a bit of a trying semester at one point, but I’m doing quite well now, and I’m really happy with where I’m at,” Nweke says.
Toeava is in her happy place working at a childcare centre. “It’s very different to netball, so I like it,” she says.
The Mystics took the lead in the premiership last weekend, with a second victory over the Stars, who had topped the table for 10 rounds. The two sides meet again this weekend.
Nothing will change in the Mystics’ approach now they’re No.1, Toeava says, because they’ve still yet to play the perfect game. “We’ve got still so much more potential, and we’re still building. We know we aren’t at our peak yet.
“We just need to be more consistent throughout the 60 minutes and trust that each person does their job. I feel that’s when we’re more connected.”
Nweke agrees. “The last couple of games have been really good and we know what we’re capable of. We definitely want to have a full 60 – winning every quarter – and we know we can do it.”