Silver Ferns success for Northcote old girl
What do you do when Silver Ferns coach Dame Noeline Taurua calls to say “We’ve booked you a flight. Can you be in Christchurch tomorrow for the series against the England Roses?”
Delighted former Northcote College student Georgia Tong said a very prompt “Yes”, then listened in something of a daze as Noeline went through the details, before bursting into happy tears as she told her fiancé the news.
For Georgia, it was a particularly amazing moment, as she’d long ago decided she would never have that kind of success … but kept playing out of sheer love of the game.
We caught up with 26-year-old Georgia to talk about where life has taken her since leaving Northcote College in 2012, and the dizzying 10 days from “that phone call” to her on-court debut as a Silver Fern last Friday.
Georgia’s passion for netball started at Northcote College.
“I honestly think it helped going through a school like Northcote – because I got to play all sorts of sports. It was really great that they encouraged us to try a whole range of sports, and I really enjoyed that. I played volleyball, basketball, soccer, touch – and netball of course. But it solidified my love of netball. I liked them all, but I loved netball,” says Georgia.
“At many other schools, if you’re stronger in netball you train so hard that you don’t have time to play any other sports. Being at Northcote helped me to try all the different sports and realise that netball was ‘the one’.”
Northcote College netball coach Vicki Royal remembers Georgia well, and had high praise for her in the 2012 Northcote College Yearbook, saying: “Georgia Tong was a remarkable captain; her leadership style was embraced by every member of the team. She led by example in everything that she did. Her positive words of encouragement when the team were down were embraced, motivation levels increased, turnovers were made, goals went in and they ended up with successful outcomes.”
Georgia’s love of netball has never wavered – although she had so many knockbacks over the years that she set her sights on sports psychology, rather than a professional sporting career of her own.
Georgia’s ability to rise above the setbacks is a testament to her love of the game.
“To be honest I never had professional netball as an aspiration. I loved it, and I knew I was quite good at it. But even at school there were so many great players who prioritised netball and made rep teams from an early age. I’d go to all the trials, but the others would make the rep teams over me. I played for the U19 Maori reps, but I didn’t make any Harbour rep teams. I guess I thought that wouldn’t happen for me, and I was happy just continuing playing because I loved it.”
After school she played with Shore Rovers, but prioritised study over netball – earning a Bachelor of Science in Sport Science and Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from Auckland University. Since moving Hamilton in 2017 to join her fiancé Raniera Takarangi – who was playing rugby for Waikato – she’s added Masters in Sports Psychology to an already-impressive list of qualifications.
The move to Hamilton was a turning point in her netball career.
“My club coach from Shore Rovers knew the coach from the national league team, which is the team underneath [Waikato Bay of Plenty] Magic. I went along for a trial – and that’s when I realised it’s something I really wanted to do,” she says.
Georgia’s now played three seasons with Magic, most often as Goal Keep. She often described as “not the tallest defender”, which the 183cm (6 foot) tall Georgia finds hugely amusing, because she’s actually taller than many defenders.
In August got the call-up to the Silver Ferns Development Squad – only to go straight into lockdown, and discover she’d injured a rib.
“I’ve been training by myself through lockdown – and I found out I had a fractured rib. I could cycle, but I couldn’t run or do any court training. I don’t really know how it happened. WE think I might have cracked it during the season and not known – and then I had a terrible cold and awful coughing fits, which made it worse.”
As the Silver Ferns series against the England Roses approached, and wasn’t at all certain that four Auckland-based players would be allowed to travel out of Level 4 Auckland to Level 2 Christchurch, the team physio talked to Georgia about whether she was recovered enough to play if needed. “I did two half-hour drill sessions, and that was OK – but I still wasn’t completely right.”
And then came “that phone call” from Noeline Taurua.
“She called at 4pm on the Wednesday, and said ‘we’ve booked you a flight – so how do you feel about coming to Christchurch?’ I think I was in shock a little bit. My first thought was ‘Whaaat? Why do you need me?’ I was listening to all the information she was telling me about where she’d want me to play … then went and told my partner and cried.”
By lunchtime Thursday she was in Christchurch. There were twice-daily trainings over the next three days.
“On Monday and Wednesday I wasn’t in the playing 12, so we did fitness training while the playing 12 did a captain’s run. On Tuesday and Thursday the whole squad did training, and they chose the playing 12 for the next night. I found out on Thursday I’d be in the playing 12 on Friday night.”
“My partner paid $650 to get a flight to Christchurch to come to the Friday game, even though I might have sat on the bench the entire game and not have played. And he did a haka for me after the game, after I’d made my debut. I got really teary-eyed. It was a very special moment.”
Georgia made her debut in the final quarter, going on at Goal Keep. “Those minutes went pretty fast,” says Georgia. “It was pretty surreal.”
“I thought I’d be way more nervous than I was,” she says. “But Noelene was really great – telling me to play to my strengths. And Goal Keep’s my favourite position. I think it’s what I’m best at. I like being able to see the whole court. Once of my strengths is coming out of the circle to attack the ball, and you can’t do that as much in Goal Defence.”
Going on with Magic captain and close friend Samantha Winders also made it less nerve-wracking.
Georgia also believes being an “older newbie” worked in her favour.
“I was brought in really late – just a day before we assembled – and I think if I’d been younger I might not have handled it as well. Being a little older means that I know it is just a game, and if I’d gone on and not played well I would have coped alright with that.”
Although the Silver Ferns had a 49-45 loss in Friday’s game (and a 2-1 loss over the three-game series) Georgia’s upbeat.
She loves her job as a sports co-ordinator at the University of Waikato. She loves playing netball with the Magic. And she hopes her spot on the Silver Ferns Development Squad will lead to more call-ups to the Silver Ferns.
Georgia’s love of the game has carried her through to Silver Ferns success – and she has some wise words for younger people seeking a sporting career.
“It helps when you have other things in your life you can focus on, and have a bit of perspective. If you don’t get chosen, you have other things you love. But to keep going even after many knockbacks you just have to genuinely love the game and keep going for the love of the game.”
Silver Ferns v England Roses match photos - Thanks to Michael Bradley Photography
Georgia and fiance Raniera - family photo courtesy of Georgia Tong