Invercargill proves to be perfect fit

16:22, Mar 11 2011
SOUTHERN SOJOURN: Stags hopeful James Lew with his partner Natasha Chokljat, who will make her ANZ Championship netball debut for Southern Steel on Monday night.
SOUTHERN SOJOURN: Stags hopeful James Lew with his partner Natasha Chokljat, who will make her ANZ Championship netball debut for Southern Steel on Monday night.

Melbourne, Sydney or Invercargill: the choice for Australian couple Natasha Chokljat and James Lew ended up being a pretty simple one.

Invercargill, of course.

It was time for a change of pace and it was time to leave the big smoke of the two Australian cities in an attempt to carve out their sporting careers in the one place.

Australian netballer Chokljat and her rugby-playing boyfriend James Lew were going about their business last year many kilometres apart.

Chokljat was playing for the Melbourne Vixens in the ANZ Championship and Lew was playing first-grade club rugby in Sydney in the hope he would crack the Super Rugby competition with one of the Australian teams.

It was a hard way to maintain a healthy relationship, and decisions had to be made


Lew hoped the Melbourne Rebels would be an option but that never eventuated, while the thought of playing for a netball team in Sydney didn't sit well with Chokljat.

They were pondering where to go next, until an email dropped into Chokljat's inbox last year.

"I got an email from Steel and thought `that would work, New Zealand, yeah, that would work.' And being a good team and a good coach, it was quite an easy decision to make."

While Chokljat is going about her business with the Southern Steel team, Lew signed with Rugby Southland with the intention of cracking the Stags squad for the 2011 National Provincial Championship competition.

It is a combination that works perfectly for both Chokjlat and Lew as they make Invercargill home – for now anyway.

"I'd spoken to Southland actually a couple of years ago when I was in the UK playing. As Tash said, it worked out really well. With the Rebels not happening for me and this opportunity coming up, it was ideal," Lew said.

Lew is a midfielder who has played sevens rugby for Australia and has played for the Melbourne Rebels in the one year Australia had a national state competition, which was to be the equivalent to New Zealand's NPC.

Lew, who will play for Blues during the Southland club season, was full of praise for what he has seen from the Rugby Southland set-up to date, saying it is a close-knit group and one he feels comfortable in.

"Everyone has been great. They're great bunch of guys. When I first got down here [Jamie Mackintosh] invited me to play a game for his touch team and just made me feel welcome."

It is a feeling Chokljat echos in regard to her introduction to the Steel environment. "I was really scared coming over here. I'd played for the same team for years so to come into a new team was different. But the girls have been great and I'm really enjoying being part of it."

For Chokljat, her start with Steel has been a frustrating one.

The former Australian international has missed the opening three rounds of the trans-Tasman competition because of a calf injury and she actually won't make her first appearance for her new team until Monday night when Steel take on Central Pulse at the ILT Velodrome in Invercargill.

"I'm very excited and a bit nervous about taking the court. I'm going to have butterflies but I'm looking forward to it."

For the moment, Chokljat and Lew are more than happy to call Invercargill home, saying the smaller-city lifestyle didn't faze them.

They have, however, taken a wee bit to come to grips with the sports-mad nature of Invercargill, especially in Chokljat's case on the netball front.

"It's been quite funny. Just random places ... I was at the pool today, I was walking in and I didn't realise but these ladies were talking to me, and I said `oh sorry' and ended up having a big chat to them. It's funny because it's like they know you."

The Southland Times