Try and stop us! Women’s rugby in the Pacific

World Rugby’s campaign to develop women at all levels of the game is a landmark crusade that is creating increasing excitement in the Pacific islands region.

The campaign—which goes by the tagline ‘Try and Stop Us. Start Rugby. Become Unstoppable’—promotes strength, power, confidence and most importantly, togetherness.

It has support at the highest levels, with World Rugby Chairman, Sir Bill Beaumont saying: “The development of women in rugby is the single greatest opportunity for our sport to grow in the next decade.” World Rugby estimates 9 million people participate in rugby worldwide, and 2.7 million, or more than a quarter of them, are women. Further, its annual research shows that 40 per cent of rugby’s 400 million fan base are female.

World Rugby has chosen 15 women and girls involved in all levels of rugby and branded them as ‘Unstoppable’ as champions of the campaign. World Rugby’s general manager for women’s rugby, Katie Sadleir says: “we’ve got coaches, match officials, players and administrators all with a different story about why they are unstoppable”.

An unstoppable Fijian
Fijiana player Litia Naiqato represents the Pacific islands in the Unstoppable campaign. The lanky forward has had her own struggle to rise to the top of her sport in a country where rugby is associated with, and is dominated by, men.

Naiqato says she has been on the receiving end of many “sarcastic comments” that she will never make it rugby. But she has endured through it all. “It was my passion and love of rugby makes me walk that extra mile,” says Naiqato.

She is hopeful that attitudes will change in Fiji and that women can also play the tough sport of rugby. “I never look back to what they said or follow what they want….I did not care about their comments,” she says.

Naiqato dreams big. “I just want to win something for Fiji and be the heroes like the boys. I want, at the next Olympics, to be standing at the podium. To take something back home”.

The ‘Get into Rugby Plus ‘ partnership
Our region is tainted by having one the highest rates of gender-based violence worldwide.

‘Get into Rugby Plus’ is another initiative established to prevent violence against women and girls and promote gender equality. A partnership between the European Union, Australian Government, United Nations Women and Oceania Rugby, it operates on a $19.5 million budget. The program was introduced in 2017 and is still in pilot stage.

UN Women Fiji representative, Jacqui Berrell says: “The model includes training coaches to facilitate life skill sessions to promote a positive behaviour through a mentoring approach. The life skill curriculum is built around the rugby values of integrity, solidarity, respect, discipline and passion, and through that, supporting young people in a process of critical thinking and reflection around issues of gender, power relationships and healthy,
respectful relationships.”

With the help of the Fiji Rugby Union, the programme has been trialled in Fiji’s Central and Western Divisions. It featured 18 trained coaches with 270 students from 10 primary schools who underwent 10 sessions over 10 weeks. The organisers say the first trial saw improvements in players’ knowledge of rugby; better understanding of where to get support if feeling unsafe; a sense of being capable of positively influencing peers; and belief in the ability of girls and women to be leaders. The program continues this school term.

While these outcomes applied to the young female participants, some coaches, such as Tevita Koroi, also found it a positive experience: “The experience has enlightened me that there is more to rugby than just physical fitness and rugby skills”.

Another male coach stated: “Rugby can also be a vehicle for instilling good values and lifelong life skills in our players. Moreover, it has also taught me to try and get to know more about my players’ family background and try to find ways and means to assist them if they need help emotionally or financially.”

The programme is considering expansion into other Pacific island countries such as Samoa and the Solomon Islands in 2020.

The Tongan hurdle
Last year it was controversially reported that women in Tonga were prohibited from playing rugby in a move to “preserve the dignity of Tongan women and hold on to Tongan cultural women,” as the Education Ministry reportedly put it.

Tempers quickly flared, with the President of the Tongan Women’s Association Fehoko Tu’ivai commenting on TV New Zealand: “How can we teach our girls to be independent when we keep making choices for them?”

Women’s rights advocate, Ofa Guttenbeil-Likiliki concurred: “It is really taking us back from all the work we have done so far in trying to achieve and bring forward gender equality in Tonga”.

In a later statement, Manu Akau’ola, a Senior Education officer claimed that it was a case of misunderstanding and confusion. However trepidation remains. The affair flushed out many of the attitudes held by traditionalists and demonstrated the challenges women in rugby continue to face.

Part of these concerns stem from the fact rugby is a contact sport. The team at UN Women in Fiji team say: “While acts of aggression and violence are often attributed to players in rugby and other sports, the rugby code condones such acts and promotes rugby as a sport that continuously works to unite people. Get into rugby PLUS uses tag rugby as a non-contact basis for young girls and boys to learn skills and strategy of rugby. Tag rugby allows players to build a sound foundation for the game in a safe environment as they develop the maturity to move to contact versions of the game, should they choose to. The aim is to ensure everyone can feel safe and welcome to play rugby, without discrimination nor harm based on race, gender, religion or sexuality”.

Perhaps women in rugby can take some inspiration from their sisters’ recent performance at the Pacific Games in Samoa. While the code is different, the women’s rugby league competition was a muddy exciting affair, which saw the Fiji team emerge victorious. The sevens competition was scheduled to start as we went to print.