Before Vilimaina Davu took the netball court she always reminded herself, “I own the circle, this is my space and I protect that space.”
The Silver Ferns goalkeeper was an enforcer whose defensive will, and skill were vital in the 2003 Netball World Cup victory in Kingston, Jamaica – the Silver Ferns’ first since 1987.
As a Year 13 student at boys’ school St Patrick’s College, Silverstream, I watched the final of that World Cup on an old TV in our religious education class. We had to wrestle the teacher to get the remote – taking a leaf out of Davu’s book and owning the classroom.
What we witnessed was the Silver Ferns showing similar aggression and ingenuity to stop Australia’s 38-game World Cup winning streak. It was a spiritual peak in RE.
How did Davu, a towering and gregarious Fijian, become central in achieving that task?
In 1992, Davu was 14 years old when she was summoned to the headmaster’s office at Lomary Secondary School. She was handed an envelope and told not to open it until she got home.
“Where I’m from, Nuku, a tiny village in Serua Province, there were no phones or electricity,” Davu recalled.
“My brother told my parents, ‘Villi’s in trouble again.’ When I opened the envelope, it was a letter from Fiji Netball. I’d been picked for the under 21 world championships.”
Davu had been playing netball since she was eight – her aerobic training was walking 10km to school every day.
“You’ll be surprised I was a shooter until I was upgraded to defence by Mrs Raitila,” she says. “She told me my aggression was better suited at the other end of the court. When I see her, I remind her of how grateful I am for that advice.”
The New Zealand U21 side beat Australia in the final of that 1992 World Youth Cup in Suva. Future Silver Ferns Julie Seymour, Linda Vagana, Bernice Mene, and Dame Noeline Taurua were on the team. “They were incredible, very inspiring,” Davu says.
Davu was captain of the Fiji senior team at 18. In 1999, the World Cup was held in Christchurch and the Fijian Pearls were on a roll. They won a handful of games and achieved a best-ever sixth-place finish. Davu was an imposing presence in the defensive circle at 190cm and 105kg.
In a consolation playoff, Fiji stretched South Africa to the limit. Proteas shooter Irene van Dyk shot 38 goals from 39 attempts, the difference in a narrow Proteas win.
Eligibility rules were casual at the turn of the millennium, so both van Dyk and Davu, who’d moved to New Zealand to further their netball, were Silver Ferns by 2000. Van Dyk settled in Wellington, while Davu, after 58 caps for Fiji, struggled initially in Christchurch.
“It was cold, I was lonely, and I often packed my bags,” she says. “After a tough training, I got home and my flatmate said, ‘Your dinner is in the oven and the rest is in the fridge’. I was hungry. In Fiji, I would have three big meals a day.
“I thought to myself it would be a roast, so I was all excited. And when I opened the oven, it was a bowl of pasta. When I opened the fridge, it was a bowl of salad. I was so upset; I went to bed with no food.”
Canterbury Flames coach Margaret Foster was pivotal in boosting the self-esteem of Davu, who debuted for the Silver Ferns in South Africa.
“Defence was different then. We were more solid compared to the athletic and lanky types of today. I used my body well but to compete in New Zealand I had to be fitter and smarter. That was hard for me, but Marg installed self-belief,” Davu says.
“I was marking Irene at a Silver Ferns training camp, and she looked at me and said, ‘Thank goodness we’re on the same team. I remember you at the world champs – I spent more time on the floor than on my own two feet.’”
“Irene had height, accuracy, and was tough. We pushed each other hard at training to get the best out of one another. It was a friendly rivalry, prudent because if you could defend Irene, you could defend anyone.”
Davu usurped more experienced defenders as a starter at the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester. In the group stage, the Silver Ferns smashed hosts England 67-35 and then overwhelmed Jamaica 69-51 in the semifinal to set up a gold medal match against Australia. In a double-overtime classic, the Diamonds prevailed 57-55.
“On the bus back to the hotel I sat next to Sheryl Scanlan and said to her, ‘Australia is so beatable’,” Davu remembers. “She didn’t take much notice, so I repeated myself and she was like ‘Whatever.’ I insisted, ‘Australia is so beatable.’ This is the first time we’ve played defence together and it took them double overtime to win.”
Silver Ferns coach Ruth Aitken adopted the dictum, “Sport is not about compassion.” In the next year, Davu only took a single week off training for the World Cup which consisted of eight games in nine days.
The Silver Ferns were ruthless en route to the 2003 World Cup decider, thrashing Niue (99-11), Barbados (84-45), Cook Islands (107-17), England (60-41), Fiji (79-24), Samoa (81-28) and Jamaica (56-37).
Work behind the scenes was just as important as what was happening on the court. Trainer Rob Nicolson and renowned Massey University psychologist Gary Hermansson added greater steel to a roster prepared for almost any possibility.
“We trained scenarios like key players missing, umpiring calls going against us, and even the lights going off in the stadium which actually happened. Every game was treated like a final. We were going to do whatever it took to beat Australia,” Davu says.
Little could be done to prepare for the boisterous Jamaican crowds but fortunately, they loved New Zealand and especially Davu.
“Every time I ran on the court the stadium went crazy. The girls gave me grief for that and then asked, ‘Why don’t they scream for us?’” Davu says. “I think because I was the same skin colour, they thought I was one of them. I think that helped us.”
The Silver Ferns led Australia 27-22 at halftime. Davu was at her intense best containing legendary Diamonds shooters Sharelle McMahon and Catherine Cox.
“Sharelle was my toughest opponent. Her movement, aggression, intelligence, and accuracy were tough to mark,” she says. “Catherine was so calm and with her height could shoot from anywhere. I’m blessed to have marked them both.”
With 10 minutes remaining and the Ferns clinging to a 40-38 lead, centre Temepara Clark (now Bailey) drew the ire of English umpire Jo Kelly.
Bailey sent wing defence Peta Scholz tumbling in a physical collision, attracting a penalty. On the very next play, she went diving for a loose ball with Cox, which resulted in more vigorous contact and the highly unusual sanction of a send-off. Australia drew level when Clark sat down for two centre passes.
With van Dyk shooting 41 from 43 attempts, Clark fearless and captain Anna Stanley (nee Rowberry) resolute, the Silver Ferns were unfazed. They nudged ahead again and ultimately won 49-47.
The Press, in Christchurch, reported. “For once, Aussie players with granite-like mental toughness, such as goal keep Liz Ellis were found to be floundering, and even captain Kathryn Harby-Williams was benched for the final quarter.”
On Davu it was noted that “her physical presence and sheer exuberance were a big factor in unsettling the Aussies early, their goal shoot missing her last three shots in the first quarter.”
Davu played more quarters (26 out of a possible 32) than any other Silver Ferns player at World Cup, including every minute from the quarter finals onwards.
She went on to play 61 tests for New Zealand, also winning a gold medal at the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne. She lost four national league finals with the Canterbury Flames. She was appointed coach of Fiji in 2006 and guided the Pearls at the 2007 World Cup.
For more than a decade she has lived in Auckland where she works for Coverstaff recruitment helping Kiwis get jobs.
“We do our best to accommodate people’s skillsets and backgrounds, and place them in industries where their skills match,” Davu says.
Davu is confident the 2023 Silver Ferns can emulate the feats of 2003.
“We have good balance throughout the court with the right skill, speed, and experience in each position to bring the trophy home,” she says. “There are seven players who are world champions. They’ve been on the journey before and that will be crucial when they are under pressure.
“Winning the World Cup was the pinnacle event of my career. When I came to New Zealand, I didn’t have any family. Netball became my family and I’m so grateful to all the coaches, players, and management who were a part of that campaign.”