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Article written by Renae Smyth for Netball Australia.

Fijian teammates Ema Mualuvu and Matila Vocea have farewelled their host families in Townsville, after spending four months with the Northern Mendi Rays in Netball Queensland’s state league as part of the Australian Government’s PacificAus Sports program.

Ema and Matila have made their way to Brisbane, where they will join the Queensland Sapphires as they begin preparations for a remodelled Australian Netball Championships competition.

The pair are the first to take part in the exchange initiative designed to create pathways for Pacific athletes and provide opportunities for them to be immersed in Australia’s high-performance environment, including coaching, training, and leadership development.

Arriving in June, Ema and Matila missed the opening matches of the HART Sapphire Series but took the court on four occasions for the Rays who unfortunately fell short of finals contention.

Despite the limited match-play, 22-year-old defender, Ema Mualuvu was determined to make the most of every opportunity to improve her game.

“I’ve had a bit of time to reflect, and I’m incredibly grateful for my time with the Rays. It’s been a special experience and one that I definitely won’t be forgetting,” Mualuvu says.

“From our very first training we felt like we were home. The team and support staff have been amazing, really welcoming us into their world and making it easy for us to get comfortable.”

“The program has helped me to grow in so many areas. From health and nutrition to building my confidence, I’ve developed a greater understanding of how all these factors come together to improve my performance out on court.”

While the focus is on training, Ema and Matila spent free time attending church and meeting the local Fijian communities.

“Being apart from family is challenging and homesickness does creep in from time-to-time, so to be able to do things that we would normally do at home has really helped,” Mualuvu said.

“We’ve really enjoyed connecting spiritually and getting to know the local Fijian community in Townsville.”

Along with their religious commitments, Ema and Matila visited local schools to deliver coaching sessions, completed coaching accreditation courses, even finding time to learn to drive.

Head of Market Development, Ellie Seckold said the program extends beyond the lines of the court and is happy to see the athletes soaking it all in.

“It’s very exciting, it’s been a long time coming,” Seckold said.

“We have faced plenty of challenges, but to see Ema and Matila finally here and experiencing everything that the Australian netball system has to offer, makes it all worth it.

“We hope they take what they have learned throughout the program back to Fiji and share it with their local communities.

“It also provides Australian players an opportunity to learn more about the Pacific through these athletes. That cultural exchange is invaluable.

“The PacificAus Sports partnership aligns with our commitment to developing the game around the world and giving women and girls every opportunity to shine – something we’ve certainly seen in Ema and Matila.”

With sights set on one day playing in the Suncorp Super Netball league, goal attack, Matila Vocea understands the importance of not taking anything for granted and encourages her fellow Pacific athletes to go after their dreams.

“The PacificAus Sports program has provided exposure to an elite environment and what life is like as a professional athlete,” Vocea said.

“Whilst it’s certainly not easy, I know what it takes now. I know I can get there, if I remain focused and continue to put it into practice what I have learned when I get home.”

“Although, it was sad to say goodbye to the friends we’ve made at the Rays, I’m looking forward to building even further with the Queensland Sapphires.”

Ema and Matila will spend the next few months in Brisbane before returning home in December to re-join the Pearls squad and begin preparations for the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham.

While no plans are confirmed due to Covid-19 pandemic, the athlete immersion program is scheduled to continue in 2022, extending to coaches and players from Samoa, Tonga and Papua New Guinea.

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