Iongi proud to wear the red and white amongst family

GROWING up in Australia, Kelea Iongi went with the status quo and followed the top three nations in Australia, New Zealand and England. She was a Diamonds support through and through.

It wasn’t until Iongi started to become more familiar with her heritage where her focus shifted more towards representing Tonga at an international level.

“I’m also big on my Tongan culture because my dad’s born in Tongan, came over to Australia but my mum was born in Australia,” Iongi told Rookie Me Central.

“I had mixed emotions, but I’m glad I did pick Tonga.”

The Tonga Tala made their Netball World Cup return in 2023 having only two athletes having played in a World Cup before. They pulled out all the stops heading into the 2023 Netball World Cup with one player coming out of retirement – former Diamond Mo’onia Gerrard, Iongi’s aunt.  

“When she did say she was interested, I think our family was so proud and everyone was just a bit, like, wow,” Iongi said, speaking about her aunt coming out of retirement.

“What a thing to happen to have myself and Mon be able to play not only together, but for our parent countries.”

Family is a big part of the Tonga Tala, either by blood or a sisterly bond.

Iongi suiting up for Tonga against Diamonds captain Liz Watson at the World Cup (Image: Ashley Vlotman/Gallo Images)

The 23-year-old felt lucky enough to be part of that experience as a vice-captain and can’t wait to get another taste of it come Sydney in 2025.

“It was actually surreal seeing all of the international teams that I used to watch growing up,” she said.

“My first World Cup was just such a big learning experience, and I’m so glad that I was able to be there and enjoy it.”

Originally starting off her career as a centre at 12-years-old, Iongi made the switch to defence as she grew taller, older and progressed through the NSW pathway.

The 183cm defender played for her local club Ashbury in Sydney and began her rep journey two years later for Inner Western Suburbs Netball Association until she was 16.

Making her first NSW Premier League team the GWS Fury at 17, Iongi kicked into gear and made her NSW Waratahs debut at 18 in the former Australian Netball League.

Iongi playing for the NSW Waratahs in 2019 (Image: Kelea Iongi/Instagram)

This was the moment when Iongi started taking her netball more seriously.

In 2018 and 2019, Iongi was selected into the under 19s Australia camp that was held at the AIS in Canberra. Iongi played her last year of state, stepped on court with the Waratahs again and was quickly signed as a training partner with the GIANTS in 2020.

Being part of the Australia under 21 squad meant Iongi was in contention to compete in the Netball World Youth Cup in Fiji, but it was cancelled. It wasn’t all doom and gloom though as she was presented with her dress as it now sits in her wardrobe wondering what could’ve been.

Changing allegiance from the GIANTS to the NSW Swifts was tough but Iongi knew having patience was key in developing her game.

“It was a lot of learning and a lot of patience just being able to see what it takes to be able to be part of the 10,” she said.

Iongi debuting for the Swifts against the Fever in Round 9 of the 2023 season (Image: Paul Kane/Getty Images

Iongi signed with the NSW Swifts as a training partner in 2023 and went on to make her Suncorp Super Netball debut in Round 9 of that year against the West Coast Fever. She went on to play on four occasions as a temporary replacement player.

Now Iongi takes her skills across the ditch and joins the Central Pulse in New Zealand’s ANZ Premiership.

Her eyes were always set on going over to New Zealand and joining their league, but the CPA battle between Netball Australia and the players stopped Iongi in her tracks from signing anything definite.

“I was sure where I was going to be after last year, but also having been sat behind Sarah Klau and Maddy Turner and Teigan O’Shannassy in the Swifts,” she said.

“I also thought maybe I need to look elsewhere for opportunities because they are very solid defenders and obviously would be picked over me.

“When the opportunity came from Pulse, I had to say yes.”

Iongi wants to carry the netball over and be a role model for girls wanting to continue netball. She also wants to continue representing Tonga on the world stage and see more red and white flags in the crowd.

“My ultimate career goal is…to see more Pacific Islander girls come into the sport and to stay in netball instead of leaving and playing for other sports,” Iongi said.

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