Vanuatu’s first-ever rugby league team in the women’s category will add to the excitement building in Honiara for the 2023 Pacific Games, with Vanuatu Rugby League (VRL) founding member and team manager of the VRL women’s squad, Ben Howard, saying there has been a great show of support for the team.
“Our Vanuatu Association of Sports and National Olympic Committee (VASANOC) had a parade through Port Vila for us and held a function with all the teams. We got to introduce our women’s national team. The public has been great to our first team and in women’s rugby league in general. We’ve also had big crowds come down to our games to watch our women play. It’s been fantastic.”
The team also had a memorable jersey ceremony, where “we got their families involved. We invited their families and significant others to present their jerseys to them. It was nice and most of them gave a small speech to encourage them for the Pacific Games,” said Howard.
“A couple of their dads are from Santo [the second biggest provincial center here in Vanuatu behind Port Vila], they actually flew down to be part of the ceremony and present the jerseys to their daughters,” he added.
Family is their greatest support.
“It means a lot to their families. There were a lot of tears shared between the parents and players. It was nice to see them finally realise the importance of our journey,” said Howard.
It was not an easy road for this women’s team.
“It started in 2018 where we had our first test match. It was so successful that we ran a short season. We’ve played seasons ever since then. We were gearing up to play some test matches to go to the Emerging Nations Championships. But unfortunately, due to COVID-19, those plans were put on hold,” said Howard.
Pathways and grassroots development also remain challenging.
“We don’t have any school competitions at the moment but we do have underage competitions. We were lucky enough last year (2022) to have the Australian Defence Force who ran a number of courses in coaching, refereeing and sports trainers where some of our girls took the initiative to start junior rugby league clubs.
“We’ve slowly built that up this year so it’s been a new initiative. We hope to get some more resources and introduce it in schools in the future.
“The biggest struggle I think we have is we’ve got a very young team,” says Howard. “The average age of our girls is 21. We do have a number of 18-year-olds who are finishing their studies, and some attend universities.”
“We support them to be able to do that because education is really important.”
“The girls juggle those [school] commitments with training, and we actually had to get a few of their tests moved because some of them will be away for the Games. It’s great to have support from their parents and schools so we could go to Honiara and live out their dreams.”
Young mothers are also part of the team, says Howard.
“Obviously, their time away from home is difficult. They’ve got to have great support from their partners and families to support them in this journey.
With preparations done, the team is confident of putting on a good performance.
“It’s been a short but very productive preparation so far. We train 5 times a week. We took the girls to the gym for the first time and we go to the field regularly. We are highly confident that our girls are going to do well with the preparations and support they’ve had.”
Howard says he is proud of the team and excited about the future of women’s rugby league in Vanuatu.
“No matter what happens in the Solomons Islands, they are already winners in my eyes. They are the first women to play for Vanuatu and in the coming years, we want more girls to follow in their footsteps.”
The team takes on Tonga in their first match on Monday 20th November, 3:25pm (SI Time) at the National Stadium.