Ten Novocastrian netballers are set to make the long trip to Tonga to help with development clinics and skills tutorials, as well as to face off against the Tongan national team in a showcase match this October.

Travelling as part of Sione’s Academy and Pathways, an initiative founded by former NRL player Sione Finefuiaki, the dozen Hunter representatives – both the young netballers and coaches travelling with them – are looking to spend time “helping with the development of young women who love netball”.

It’s a path that Nettyhead’s Natalie Hilder, who herself now coaches and teaches the sport in the Newcastle and Hunter region, didn’t expect herself to be heading on, but she’s admitted she’s “excited” to be heading on a trip that feels “half awesome holiday, half teaching assignments”.

Hilder explained that when Sione’s Academy first headed over for their lessons and clinics, they were expecting a love of rugby league and rugby union throughout the villages and schools.

What surprised them was a deep seeded love and adoration for netball, so much so that Finefuiaki and everyone that had travelled with him found themselves “putting away the footys” and getting out onto the courts to play netball.

“He came back to Australia with the idea that he had to get a netball academy on board for 2018, and Nettyheads put together a team so that we could travel over,” Hilder explained.

“A lot of the girls heading over have been together and are currently playing in the under 15s rep squad together. They’re a really lovely group of girls, and we’re all really excited to be getting involved and spreading good things through netball.”

Sione’s Academy will this year be taking a group of 65 people across to Tonga, many of whom will be playing and teaching sport through the island. There will also be builders, workers and plumbers, who will work on the rebuilding of the local school where they are based.

“A lot of it is just about getting the message around about being fit and healthy, and getting that love of netball and sport growing, but a lot of us are also heading over to help fix the school and buildings,” Hilder said.

“We all stay together in Tonga but we’re separated into two groups who are heading over together to bring different things. It’s really exciting, ever since the idea first came about I knew I would love it because I’ve always loved coaching and teaching.

“To take a team overseas through Nettyheads and to be able to deliver that passion that we share here to another different country and culture is going to be so exciting. I’m just counting down the days now.”

Hilder and the Nettyheads team will also be donating balls, equipment and netball kits to the villages that they visit, as well as playing shoes.

The team, and all involved in Sione’s Academy and Pathways, will set off for Tonga on October 5.