On Friday, Cathrine Latu confirmed she’d be back playing netball for the Northern Mystics next season. Considering she has been with the side every year since the ANZ Championship started in 2008, that shouldn’t have been much of a surprise.
But the last month had been a turbulent one for Cat and you wouldn’t have held it against her if recommitting to netball wasn’t her top priority.
As you probably know by now, she was the highest-profile omission from Wai Taumaunu’s Silver Ferns side for next month’s netball world cup. That was especially tough for her because she had travelled a long and bumpy path before she won her first black dress.
As a 20-year-old, she jumped at the chance to have a run for Samoa at the 2007 world cup in Auckland. As a result, she had to serve a four-year international stand-down before she could play for New Zealand. And, despite the Silver Ferns being desperate to include her, that meant she could only watch the 2011 world cup. So 2015 was always going to be an important year.
We caught up with this intriguing and forthright character a couple of times for this story. Most of the interview was done a month ago. And then we checked in with her again recently to see how she was coping.
PART I (June 24)
Despite the complications and the consequences, you sound at ease about your decision to play for Samoa all those years ago?
I don’t think I’ll ever change my opinion on that. It was tough – and it has made it tough – but I really do believe that situation helped me become the player and the person that I am today, because I had to fight.
Since then I’ve had to fight other things – including stereotypes of what a netballer should look like – and that’s given me a second and third and fourth skin.
Did I hear right that missing the Northland u19s was a huge deal for you?
Honestly, I thought my life was over.
I was in the third form at Bay of Islands College and was the baby in the school’s premier team. All my mates from the prems made that side and I was the only one that didn’t. I cried and cried in the car and almost wanted to give up netball.
But then all these other things happened, purely because I didn’t make that team, so I often tell that story. Everyone goes through that sort of thing at some stage or another. They miss out on something that they think they deserve. Or they’ve been ripped off. But, for me, that door shut and a window opened.
You left home and moved from Kawakawa down to Auckland on a netball scholarship not long after that. Did you appreciate how big a step that was going to be?
I knew I’d be moving from a small school [Bay of Islands College had about 300 kids] to a big one [Massey High with over 2,000] and I think I managed that part okay.
I moved in with a lovely older couple in Auckland. But having a quiet home wasn’t what I was used to. I come from a family of 10 kids, so being at home and having no one there to tease or run around after was the hard part – and I didn’t really see that coming.
Do you think that shift, as a 15-year-old, had a big influence on your character now?
Maria Tutaia reckons that the first time we met I was a bit of a jerk. But coming to Auckland, from a place like Northland, is very different and I saw no other way to try and handle myself – especially when I didn’t have family to go home to, or to complain to about things.
I stick out like a sore thumb. It’s not like I can blend into the crowd. I’m always seen. I’m always in someone’s face. And kids can be mean at school. I had no one to kind of bounce those feelings off. So I thought that, if I was a little harder to approach, or a little harder to pick on, then I wouldn’t get picked on so much. And that’s how I got through it. When I found the necessity to be staunch or appear somewhat arrogant, I was.
But, other than that, I think most people that really know me know that I will cry at the drop of a hat and I’m a huge sook. And I care for people more than people realise.
You met a boy at Massey High too? (Her fiancé, Jim Tuivaiti, is a North Harbour rugby player, who’ll shortly head off to Italy to play for Calvisano).
Jim was the new guy at school in seventh form and he wouldn’t leave me alone. He had attachment issues and followed me around like a little puppy. Ten years later he’s still following me around.
(Jim is within ear-shot of this comment. He smiles, shakes his head and lets things slide – a routine you suspect he’s followed plenty of times before).
Can you tell us a bit about your mum and dad?
Mum’s name is Mary-Anne. She was a Huxtable before getting married. She’s Palagi, with a bit of Maori, and is from Kawakawa, in the Bay of Islands. Both her parents were born up there too.
Dad, David Latu, is Tongan. In fact, he’s very Tongan. People are surprised when they hear him speak, as his English isn’t the greatest. His family is from Nuku'alofa. He had two very Tongan parents also.
When I was asked about playing for Samoa, we traced Dad’s Samoan heritage. It was back quite far – but it was still there. So that’s how that story unfolded.
Dad moved to New Zealand about 40 years ago. He met Mum in Auckland – out west.
Do you know how they met?
They met in a bar, which I was trying to avoid saying. And then Mum got pregnant …
From the bar?
No. Not from the bar. I’m assuming it was a little bit later, but I really don’t want to think about that at the moment.
The Tongan tradition is that you are married when you have children. So when my mum was pregnant, my grandfather came over from Tonga to … encourage them to make the correct decision.
They went on to have ten kids over 20 years. Eight of us, including me, were born in Auckland. Then two more came along when the family moved up to Northland.
We’re spread from 17-37 years now. And we’re spread around the planet too, with some still up North, some in Auckland, a few in Australia and one in America. I’m in the youngest half – sixth from the top. There are six girls, four boys.
I’m especially close now with my sister Celia. She was one of the oldest kids and didn’t really want a bar of me when I was younger. When I moved out of home at 15, she lived in Auckland. Even though I was out west and she was south, we became close. She was all I had.
Immediately above me, I have two brothers and then there’s a run of girls after them.
I was the boss of the younger girls. I could tell them what to do – and that was kind of boring. But I really wanted to be friends with the two boys and get in on their playtime. Even just having them notice me would’ve been okay. So I’d chase after the ball and do whatever they wanted me to do.
Do you look back on your efforts to play with the boys as being handy for your sporting development?
Well … I didn’t really have the fun jobs. In fact, I had all the stink jobs. So, I don’t know. I think it put me in a place where I could still feel like a leader, with the younger girls, but I also had to run around and try and be accepted.
There’s a fair bit going on for you ethnically. How do those strands all marry together?
Through my Dad, I am mostly Tongan. However, I played for Samoa, I’ve been with Jim [who is Samoan] for 10 years, we lived with his parents for 5-6 years, and I can understand the Samoan language. Sometimes Jim, when he doesn’t want people to know what he’s on about – like when we’re at my Mum and Dad’s house – will speak to me in Samoan.
Then, through Mum, there is some Ngapuhi blood. It’s back a fair way, like the Samoan. But where we grew up was predominantly Maori, so I feel especially comfortable with things Maori.
I’m taking lessons in Tongan because I want to be able to speak my native tongue. Man it’s hard though. The same word can mean an action and a flower and a bird. It’s painful.
Your combination with Maria Tutaia has been a key one in your sporting life. Can you tell us some more about the start of that relationship?
I don’t know whether she’s putting a bit extra on it, but she says that, when we first met, she said hello and I didn’t say hello at all. I refuse to believe that happened.
She said I had a reputation going around – that I was a bit of a dick.
And when we talk about it now, it’s funny. The people that said that to her didn’t know me at all. They just see what looks like a scowl, but it’s just that I have a bitchy resting face, and an assumption is made of my personality based on that - because I’m not walking around smiling like a weirdo.
And Maria, now that we’re older, knows that people just made that assumption.
But, you know, I’d heard things about her too.
She… nah, I’m not gonna say that. (Laughs)
I’d heard that she thought she was the best netballer going around – and that’s not in fact true.
Because you were?
Nah, I mean she didn’t think that. She just got a few opportunities and made the most of them and, again, people made assumptions.
Speaking of assumptions … people could assume that you two are always together. Is that the case?
It’s been a while since we’ve hung out and done each other’s nails and braided each other’s hair…
But we do get along really well. We’re very good friends. And, in a netball sense, that’s helped. We’ve been able to have conversations that might have been quite strange with someone else. It’s not like we say nice things to each other all the time.
We can be heard swearing at each other on court, because we know how each other ticks. Sometimes when it’s just giving it to you hard and fast, that’s okay. Luckily, we’re not sensitive about such things.
I think there might have been some swear words – or swear looks at least – exchanged in the Mystics semi-final against the Firebirds?
From me? To me? See, I’ve already forgotten about it.
Have you always been a shooter?
Tall people either shoot or defend. There ain’t room for us in the middle, anywhere. I’ve always been a bookend - so either a Goal Keep or Goal Shoot.
I fell into Goal Shoot, because my hands were a bit better than some of the other girls in my age group. But I couldn’t shoot at the time. So shooting is something I’m still working on.
Statistics are a big deal in modern sport. How do you look at volume of shots versus your percentage accuracy?
Volume is a bigger focus for me. I can’t stand that percentage stuff – and the more people bring it up the more I think about it too. Percentages look really nice on paper [Cat was again the most-accurate shooter in the ANZ Championship this season at 93.8%], but that doesn’t necessarily mean you can win the game with that.
I think, to do my part in a successful team performance, I need to shoot about 10 goals a quarter. Obviously I’ve had the luxury of having the best long-bomb shooter in the world [Maria] right next to me for a few years.
I do get a lot of heat for shooting under the post, but I am never really reported [in the media] for getting the ball under the post in the first place. It’s not the easiest thing to do.
But, keeping that in perspective, if I do my part and she does hers, then there’s no reason why we wouldn’t come out with a win.
How much of the challenge of shooting is mental compared to physical?
Being taller helps, but it’s mostly mental. To shoot, you have to undergo the harassment from defenders right beforehand, so you have to move from fight to calm. That’s quite a struggle.
Personally, I don’t know why the game is changing so much. It seems there are one set of rules in one country and another set of rules in another – but the rules are all the same around the world. I think it’s really starting to hurt the game. As players, we need to adjust. But something needs to be addressed at a higher level as well.
What are your plans post-netball?
I’ll be having twins – or triplets. I’ve wanted to be a mum since I got a boyfriend. But I’ve made a career path and plan with netball.
I’ve been lucky enough to have nine brothers and sisters and all bar one of them has had kids. So there are plenty of kids I can use until they use up all my money and then I give them back. So it’s not like I’m not around children but, when I can, I’ll be having some offspring.
PART II (July 24)
So … it’s been a tricky period. How are you doing?
Yeah, the past month has been a rollercoaster for me. Emotionally, it’s been one of the hardest times I’ve been through. The decision to stay and play for the Mystics, however, came quite easily. This region [which covers from Northland to the bottom of Auckland] and the people in it have been hugely supportive of me over the years. So that’s a massive part of why I want to play a ninth season with the side.
I am fiercely loyal and have never been handed more of a reason to make a difference to the team.
So what are the immediate plans?
I’m back playing some club netball and am surrounded by people who play just because they love it. That’s been awesome. I need to get myself back to where things are fun again. I’m training hard, too, so I’m fit and ready to go for the New Zealand A team shortly.
(Cat will head to Sydney next week with the New Zealand A team, which contains players who’d come into the Silver Ferns side if there were injuries. They will play five games before the netball world cup, which starts on August 7).
© e-tangata, 2015
Silver Ferns and Northern Mystics netballer
Auckland born – 26 October 1986
Position: Goal Shoot
Schools: Kawakawa Primary, Bay of Islands College, Massey High
Caps: New Zealand (24), Samoa (30), Northern Mystics (108)