Fighting their way to the top of the rugby world

Women rugby players breaking breaking through the barriers, on and off the field.

Concerns about the need to create more opportunities to involve women in the administration of rugby in the Pacific Islands and provide a better support system to develop a safe and professional environment for the women’s game, have come out of a series of public discussions in Fiji over the past three months.

Three years after former Samoan player, Daniel Leo, exposed corruption in his national union with the  documentary, Oceans Apart: Greed, Betrayal and Pacific Island Rugby, he featured prominently in one of the discussions alongside a screening of his documentary at the Pacific Community’s (SPC) third human rights film festival in Suva in November. 

The festival featured among other topics, discussions on Pacific and Fijian rugby, cultural issues around motherhood and infertility, climate threat, refugeeism, gender-based violence, Pacific intergenerational trauma, and the power of the arts and especially filmmaking to break these cycles. Women’s and children’s rights were consistent themes.

Among the topics that the discussion brought to the fore, Leo’s fellow panelists spoke about how much women’s rugby has evolved in Fiji and that it has taken a historical Olympic bronze medal in 2019, first-time Rugby World Cup qualification, and back-to-back Super W Championships (held in Australia) to eventually turn heads in the rugby fraternity and prove that women can also play rugby.

Said Elena McDonald, one of the first women to play rugby in Fiji: “It started way back in the 90s when there were just two clubs (University of the South Pacific and Queen Victoria School women) to play 7s rugby, and then 10s and later 15s teams. It’s [taken] close to 30-35 years for us to get where we are today. This is huge where we are at now. It is massive and I’m proud of it.”

However, some barriers and stigma surrounding women in rugby still exist and more needs to be done to address the gender disparity. 

“There’s always challenges in getting participation,” said another Film Festival panelist, former Fijiana flanker, Mere Moto.  

“While we got the bronze medal and it sort of got everybody wanting their daughters, their nieces to play rugby, there’s still a lot of reservations in the Fijian culture. There are people that are still saying that this is not the space. This is not a sport that girls and women should be taking [up].”

In June last year, Fiji Rugby was under the spotlight over the outcry by the national’s 15s women’s team (led by their captain, Sereima Leweniqila) about the lack of proper treatment and non-payment of wages. The team eventually got their dues following a groundswell of support from the public, as well as private entities, who pushed for the women’s team to be heard.  

Also part of the Film Festival panel was former Fijiana prop, Leilanie Burnes, who captained the Fijiana side in 2019 to secure its first-ever qualification for the Rugby World Cup. “What needs to be improved upon is what is done off the field,” said Burnes. We need to be able to provide an environment and a culture that attracts women to be able to step up into these positions and an environment for them to be able to succeed.”

Rounding up the film festival discussion, Daniel Leo urged Pacific Island nations who are facing similar challenges in the sport, to be part of the answer and speak out for themselves. 

“We’ve got a voice. God has blessed us with platforms, through rugby, to be able to address things we need to change. Let’s be a beacon of light to help transform our islands and there’s no reason why we can’t do it.”

The panel heard that the women’s game is the fastest growing sport in the South Pacific and has had around 37% growth in participation compared to 26% growth in the men’s game. The key has been  proper administration and more women’s participation in decision making roles previously held by men.

Speaking at a Citizen’s Constitutional Forum discussion panel in December, Oceania Rugby representative to World Rugby, Cathy Wong pointed out that prior to 2018, World Rugby was a male-dominated board. 

“Not a single woman on the board. Constitutional changes and reforms were made by President Bill Beaumont which allowed for women to sit on the highest table of the council. Today, about 30% of the board are women,” said Wong.

“So, when we start at the top, it transpires downwards. In the Pacific, we tend to start from the bottom  and try and build up, and that can be very difficult because we are fighting against the tide. We need to be in that room. We need to get to the top table and then work our way down.”

Wong cited World Rugby’s expectations of the Fiji Rugby Union, as an example.

“From World Rugby’s perspective, having women at the top table means we must have women on the Fiji Rugby Union (FRU) board. Having one out of eight board members is not enough. Australia and New Zealand have four women board members but unfortunately, in Oceania, all our 17 member unions have only one woman board member.” 

World Rugby’s target is to increase that to 30% of female representation, not by quota but by qualification and merit. 

“We have grown so much to where we are now. We now have women sitting in various positions, not only on the board but in other leadership positions too. Now we also have women who actually play rugby for a job and women who administer rugby. We also had our first female referee [from Fiji] officiating in the HSBC 7s Series. But it takes time, planning, strategising and training to make sure we get to that level.”

Wong gives credit to the International Olympic Committee for recognising women in rugby.  

“In 2016, we had to fight our way to get recognised and the only way was to make sure that all our 136 member countries recognise women in their constitution.” 

That was how 7s rugby was finally included as an official Olympic sport.

Also addressing the CCF webinar was Asinate Rokovaki, Fiji Bulikula manager and counselor. 

The Bulikula is the national women’s rugby league team of Fiji. 

While rugby league is a different format from rugby union, Rokovaki highlighted that women in rugby league also faced the same challenges in trying to bridge the gap between men and women. 

“Through hard work and dedication, we’ve managed to pay our women (Bulikula) players the same amount of money as the men (Fiji Bati). That in itself is a huge change for us, a breakthrough especially for our local women’s players,” said Rokovati.

Another prime example of leading Pacific women who are breaking barriers in rugby is Fiao’o Fa’amausili, a former New Zealand Black Ferns captain and four-time Rugby World Cup winner. Of Samoan heritage, Fa’amausili is possibly the only Pacific woman to be inducted into the World Rugby Hall of Fame. But her list of rugby accolades does not end there.  She is a New Zealand Police detective by profession and served as President of Auckland Rugby Union in 2021 – the first woman to ever do so.

The fight to get women to the top of the rugby world clearly has nothing to do with their capabilities. 

But if there are any questions, women such as Fa’amausili show they can easily balance the score cards – on and off the field.