20 Apr 2024

Netball: Pulse import player grateful for opportunities

11:38 am on 20 April 2024
Pre Season Netball Tournament - Pulse vs Stars at Ngā Purapura, Ōtaki, New Zealand on Friday 15 March 2024.

Kelea Iongi at the pre season tournament - Pulse vs Stars at Ngā Purapura, Ōtaki. Photo: Masanori Udagawa / PhotoWellington

After four years as a training partner in the Australian domestic competition, a fairy tale run with the Tongan netball team gave Pulse import Kelea Iongi the boost she needed.

Iongi is one of the few import players in the ANZ Premiership this season.

The defender got her ANZ Premiership debut last weekend when she stepped out on court for a few minutes in round one.

Training partners can spend several years on the bench in the Australian Super Netball competition with no guarantee they will get that elusive breakthrough into a full time gig.

The 23-year-old spent three years with the Giants, then one year with the Swifts, so when the Pulse came calling it was a no-brainer to come to New Zealand.

"I was on a phone call with my Tongan coach, who's from Taranaki, and she mentioned to me that someone from the Pulse contacted her and wanted to see if I would be keen to be a part of their 2024 team. I was a training partner so nothing was really holding me back," Iongi said.

Former Silver Ferns captain and coach Wai Taumaunu is the defensive specialist coach at the Pulse and has a keen eye for talent.

"I think she was the one that contacted my Tongan coach and then she was the one I got in contact with and she just wanted to see if I was keen to come over and play."

The Tongan Tala after their fantastic effort in Suva

The Tongan Tala qualifying for the World Cup in 2022. Photo: Netball Fiji

Iongi grew up in Sydney so when she moved to Wellington in January, the weather took some adjusting to.

"It's really cold. It's actually really windy and that's probably the first thing that I noticed. Before I moved over, everyone was like 'oh, you're moving to windy Wellington' and I thought they were just being a bit dramatic but now I see why they call it that."

Iongi played a lot of sports growing up including league, football, volleyball, and sevens.

Both her parents are Tongan. Her father moved to Australia from Tonga when he was 19, and her mother was born in New South Wales.

Iongi is also the vice-captain of the Tongan team.

The underdogs started 2022 with no ranking at all after a Covid-enforced hiatus and by March 2023 they were ranked seventh in the world thanks to an extraordinary winning streak.

The side qualified for last year's World Cup in South Africa, in only their second outing at the sport's showpiece event.

Iongi believes the success of the team, which included a very creditable eighth at the World Cup, helped increase the profile of the players.

The Tonga captain Hulita Veve now has a full-time contract with the Queensland Firebirds, and shooter Uneeq Palavi is now a training partner with new Australian franchise the Melbourne Mavericks.

"I think it helped a lot ... the playing opportunities we got with the Tongan Tala in the last two years have really helped not only myself but a lot of the girls. It's helped me tremendously and I'm so thankful and grateful, not only to be a part of the team, but to also help build history for the Tonga Tala as well."

Hulita Veve of Tonga pass to Uneeq Palavi during the Netball World Cup 2023 Pool A match between Tonga and Zimbabwe at CTICC Court 2 on July 30, 2023 in Cape Town, South Africa.

Hulita Veve of Tonga (left) and Uneeq Palavi during the Netball World Cup 2023. Photo: Shaun Roy/Gallo Images

Iongi has a strong sporting pedigree. Her aunty is former Diamonds standout defender Mo'onia Gerrard.

"She's also been like a big sister to me and she used to get me to come to her games. When I went to her games, I never really knew what netball was, I was actually playing tennis at the time."

Iongi was so young at that time that she was not even aware of the Australian Diamonds, and that her aunty was a star player in the side.

"Her mum would come pick me up and take me to her games and I'd see people taking photos and stuff with her. I'd be like 'what the heck, why are people asking for her autograph and taking photos?'

"All I saw her as was my aunty and she was playing this game that she really loved and she was really humble about what she was doing and the teams that she was making."

Incredibly, Iongi got to play alongside her aunty, when Gerrard came out of retirement to represent Tonga at the World Cup last year at the age of 42.

"I grew up with her, we're still in contact ... she's been a big part of helping me with this journey and game."

Silver Ferns coach Wai Taumaunu

Wai Taumaunu has coached some of the best players in NZ. Photo: Photosport

Through her journey with the Tonga Tala, Iongi discovered that she is related to Tactix training partner Vika Koloto, a Tongan New Zealander.

"We found out at the World Cup qualifiers in Fiji in 2022, it was the first time I ever met her. One day at breakfast she told me we were related through her Dad, and her mom sent a full family tree of how we're related. So yeah, that was crazy."

At the Pulse, Iongi joins Parris Mason, Kelly Jackson (nee Jury), and Fa'amu Ioane in the defensive end.

"Coming from playing man on man defence in Australia to here and doing a lot more space defending and coming off your player more and looking for intercepts - that's really been a challenge for me, but it's been a good one. And the girls have really helped me and backed me and I've been able to learn from them."

Iongi is flatting with Khiarna Williams and Parris Petera, who are also living away from their home towns.

Iongi said she was enjoying getting specialist defensive coaching from Taumaunu.

"I've loved her. She is straightforward to the point but I kind of love that in a coach and her insight in the game and what she sees from the outside and just learning off her, knowing that she is a legend of the game, it's been really good."

The Pulse host the Magic in Wellington on Saturday afternoon.

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