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The fast and furious, five-a-side game, Hockey5s, aims to introduce hockey to an all-new global audience. And it’s succeeding. At the first ever Hockey5s World Cup, held in January 2024 in Muscat, Oman, the stands were filled with passionate supporters, cheering on teams drawn from right across the world.

Many of those teams, including Australia and South Africa, were veterans of international field hockey, accustomed to representing their countries at an elite level. By contrast, the men’s and women’s teams from Fiji – the Pacific’s sole representatives at the World Cup – were newcomers: bursting with talent and keen to test their skills against the best in the world.

By the end of the event, the men’s team had notched up an historic World Cup win against Jamaica, while the women’s team had secured two wins and a draw, proudly claiming 12th place in the global rankings, just below Australia at 11th.

“We started this journey in 2023 and qualified in the top 16 in the world – a once-in-a-lifetime feat,” the women’s team posted on Facebook at the close of the tournament. “From the day we started this journey 17 months ago, we have pushed our limits financially, mentally and physically. Today, we stand tall, among our idols and hockey giants.”

Every journey begins with a single step

The pathways to international-level competition for the Hockey5s game are still in development, making high-performance preparation and game-play experience a challenge for emerging teams like Fiji.

PacificAus Sports addresses barriers of this kind, providing Pacific sports organisations with opportunities to take part in elite-level sporting activities in Australia, supported by specialist training staff.

Having been awarded a grant in 2023, the Fiji Hockey Federation (FHF) was able to send a squad of 30 players, coaches and officials to take part in the inaugural Hockey5s Oceania Cup, held on the Gold Coast as a qualifying tournament for the World Cup.

In the days leading up to the competition, the Fijians’ preparations were supported by Hockeyroo Rosie Malone, who represented Australia at the Tokyo Olympics, and Hockey Queensland coach, Tinesha Carey. By the end of the week, the Fijians had triumphed with third place wins for both the men’s and women’s teams – assuring them of a place at the World Cup.

Captain of the women’s team, Catherine Fabiano, spoke to the media after the third place play-off: “I’m excited for my team, I’m overwhelmed. This is something that we only dreamed about – now we get to live that dream.”

The team’s long-time coach, Hector Smith, was equally moved by his players’ achievement.

“I’ve been in the sport for so long. To see the girls cry for joy - it’s everything a coach wants,” he said. “We’ve done the Pacific Islands nations very proud.”

Friendships, on and off the hockey field

At the close of the tournament, the Fijian squad travelled to Murwillumbah, just over the border in New South Wales, at the invitation of Margaret Coleman, President of Hockey Tweed. While there, they visited beaches and scenic spots, met with locals, and joined in NAIDOC week activities recognising and celebrating the history and ongoing contributions of the local Aboriginal community.

Seven of the twenty players in the men’s and women’s teams identify as i-Taukei, the indigenous people of the Fijian islands, and the squad took the opportunity to add to celebrations of indigenous culture by singing some traditional Fijian songs.

Before returning to Fiji, the men’s team also connected with Brisbane-based club, the Capri Sharks. The Sharks donated equipment to help support the development of the grassroots game in Fiji, and also offered to provide playing opportunities within their own club to Fijian players keen for some additional exposure to high-performance competition.  

“This is a generous invitation for the Fiji Hockey community, and we will ensure to establish a relationship with this club to grow our sport,” said FHF President, Emi Nawaqakuta.

Hockey’s men and women, on a level playing field

As a former member of the national women’s team, Emi is using her role as President to ensure the next generation of Fijian hockey players have access to a robust talent development framework and ample opportunities to participate at the highest level. She is well aware of the role that funding plays in opening up pathways for promising young players, especially women. And she highlights that, prior to the Hockey5s World Cup, Fiji had not been represented at an international hockey event by both men’s and women’s teams in more than a decade.

“The last international tour for both Fiji men and women was in 2013,” she says. “The Fiji men have competed annually, whereas the Fiji women have competed every two to three years depending on finances and opportunities. With the PacificAus Sports grant, the Fiji women’s team were given an equal opportunity to compete for… a spot at the inaugural Hockey 5s World Cup.”

The Oceanic Cup also created opportunities for women to gain experience as coaches and officials, Emi notes, adding that female umpire Ateca Fatufago was selected by the Oceania Hockey Federation to take part.

Building on a foundation of success

The twin podiums achieved by the men’s and women’s teams at the Hockey5s Oceania Cup were backed up a few months later with outstanding results at the Solomon Islands 2023 Pacific Games, where both sides won gold. As the year came to a close, it seemed Fiji’s Hockey5s heroes couldn’t have had a better run up to their historic World Cup debut.

Within a few months, they had returned from the event in Oman having made their mark on the international game, to the delight of fans and supporters at home. According to Emi, it’s just the beginning.

“On behalf of the Fiji Hockey Federation, I want to express my deepest gratitude and heartfelt appreciation to the Australian Government through PacificAus Sports for the grant [which] was instrumental in making our dream for the World Cup a reality,” she says. “We strengthened hockey relationships at the community level, national level, and regional level. Moving forward, we will maintain and grow existing connections and, if possible, establish new connections that will help us grow and strengthen the sporting relationship between Fiji Hockey and Hockey Australia, and celebrate the shared love for hockey between Australia and the Pacific nations.”

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