Pride of a nation

PNG co-captain brings netball experience to Strath Storm

All those one percenters make you a whole team and help get you over the line. - Maleta Roberts

INTERNATIONAL netballer Maleta Roberts could be forgiven for suffering a slight identity crisis at times throughout her decorated career.

Growing up in Queensland and playing in state representative and national league teams, the talented goaler was often seen as "the Papua New Guinean" in reference to her birth country.

Yet when she returned to the Pacific nation in 2006 to trial for PNG's national squad for the first time, some viewed her as "that Australian person" coming over to take a local's place.

But the 28-year-old, who now lives in Bendigo, only had to look to her extended family to help break the ice with any doubters.

"At those trials, there was a swarm of people there watching and the girls in the team were asking who they all were," Roberts recalls. "I told them they were members of my family (aunties, uncles, cousins) and it finally clicked for them that I really am a PNG person. That's when they really opened up.

"My family were so happy and proud and excited to see me and see that I had come back to trial for the country - it was awesome and a really good experience.

"I got in the team and was the first overseas-based player chosen to play for PNG."

Roberts, who co-captained her homeland this month at the Nations Cup tournament in Singapore, was recently appointed head netball coach of Strathfieldsaye Storm for 2014.

In a coup for the Bendigo Football Netball League club, she brings a wealth of experience that includes playing for PNG at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi and for Queensland Firebirds in the Commonwealth Bank Trophy competition.

Roberts' netball journey began after her family left Bougainville Island, where she was born, when her father took on a role with Mount Isa Mines in outback Queensland.

“Luckily we moved when we did, as civil unrest on Bougainville forced the closure of the mine and much suffering for the people there. We went to Mount Isa when I was three and mum put me into netball when I was eight.

“In our family, all the women have always played netball. In PNG, it’s very popular with women, especially those from the southern region or Papua, and these days the game is played nationally. 

"I started off in defence but mum said, 'she's a shooter and always will be'. So I went into shooter the next game and never changed position until recently, when I branched out into wing attack."

Roberts made her first state team - the Queensland primary school squad - at 12 and remembers nervously venturing to Sydney for the national championships.

"It was overwhelming - I was quite a shy kid so it was really big for me," says the youngest of four siblings. "Mum came with me and I probably wouldn't have gone without her."

The family shifted to Brisbane some two years later.

Roberts was soon selected as a shadow member for the Metropolitan North schoolgirl team and seized her opportunity when called in at the eleventh hour to replace an injured player.

"I thought I would just sit on the bench - and I did for the first few games," she says. "Then they put me on and never took me off. From then I was always in the team, not a shadow player, and things just skyrocketed."

In the following years, Roberts was named in Queensland's 17-and-under, 21-and-under and senior open squads, played for Queensland’s Catholic side in a national competition and was offered a scholarship with the Queensland Academy of Sport.

She went on to play for the Firebirds and later Queensland Fusion in the inaugural Australian National League.

Through that period, Roberts completed year 12 then gained a Bachelor of Science (ecology and conservation biology) degree at Griffith University.

She says her family background has provided inspiration for her sporting achievements.

"I always put in 110 per cent and I like to prove people wrong," she says. "Because of my parents' challenges and what they went through, they instilled in us to fight for every opportunity, work really hard, never give up, and always have something to do.

"For us kids, it was school and sport. We had a strict upbringing, but it kept us out of trouble and we excelled at everything we did."

Roberts credits mum Ada with having the biggest influence on her early career.

"Mum was my first coach and I think I learnt most of my stuff from her," she says.

"My parents followed me everywhere. Moving to Bendigo (where her partner has family) probably broke their heart a little bit, as they can't watch me play every week in local competitions now, only at major tournaments."

She also idolised Australian goal-shooting legends Vicki Wilson, who coached her at Firebirds, and Sharelle McMahon, who hails from central Victoria.

Playing for her native homeland has been a dream come true for Roberts, who holds a PNG passport, and she rates the Commonwealth Games as "the best netball highlight of my life".

She finds herself co-captain after seven years in the national squad and appearances in the Arafura Games, Pacific Netball Series and Nations Cup tournaments.

PNG has been as high as 11th in world netball rankings during her time, but has fallen to as low as 20 in recent years.

So their performance at the 2013 Pacific series in Samoa, finishing runners-up to Fiji, was a huge surprise to the international netball community.

"To come into that tournament ranked bottom of all the teams and to play the way we played just blew everyone away," Roberts says, explaining how she embraced her leadership role.

"I felt like I had a responsibility to bring everybody together and speak. Generally in the PNG culture and being a young person, I didn't say much because you had to respect your elders.

"I had been vice captain for the past few years, but I did more of the caring stuff - making sure people were in bed on time and the meals were okay - rather than managing the team.

"Becoming co-captain, I decided from the start we would sit together, we'd communicate, they'd communicate to myself and the other captain and we’d relay back to the coach what we needed.

"It was experience I brought from Australia - how my managers would run my state teams. That communication really worked. If we said to be somewhere at a certain time, we all were, there was no turning up 15 minutes late.

"All those one percenters make you a whole team and help get you over the line and we did everything right. I think that's why as a unit we played well and everything went our way.

"It was extremely good for the country, as we got a lot of support after that tournament which helped us get to Singapore (for the Nations Cup).

"Sponsorship and funding is really tough over there and that's where I miss out. They work so hard to fundraise and there's only so much I can do from here."

In fact, Roberts only booked her flight to Singapore two weeks before the tournament began.

"It's a struggle every single tournament - they always make it happen, but at the very last minute."

Unity, communication and strong team values will form the platform from which Roberts will take Strath Storm's netballers into the 2014 BFNL season.

Despite finishing fifth in 2011, Storm's A-grade side has only won three games in each of the past two seasons. But Roberts, who will also coach A-reserve, looks forward to the challenge.

"The girls here have great potential," she says. "They are so strong and I think that's the regional spirit as well, they are all fighters.

"I just want to tailor their skills and we will have the perfect package."

For more about Roberts and her plans for Strath Storm, see Women in Sport next Saturday.

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