Although understandably disappointing at first, the Fijiana Rugby team are turning the postponed Women’s Rugby World Cup into a positive. Scheduled to be hosted by New Zealand in September and October of this year, the tournament has been delayed until 2022 because of uncertainty over COVID-19 travel restrictions and quarantine requirements. Sports minister Grant Roberts says the New Zealand Government remains committed to hosting the tournament next year, and meanwhile, the Fiji women continue their preparations to make their debut on the world stage.
The rescheduling of the 2021 Women’s Rugby World Cup until a similar time next year has meant different things to players and coaches, but Fijiana players are putting their frustrations aside to prepare for their first time competing at the tournament.
Back-to-back victories over Samoa in the space of eight days at the 2019 Oceania Rugby Women’s Championship saw Fijiana qualify convincingly.
Fiji skipper since 2016, 30-year-old Sereima Leweniqila says the delay has given the team more time to prepare, and potentially an opportunity to get some test matches under their belt.
“There is time to find the right players and get a good team ready for the tournament – to get stronger and better,” Sereima says.
Having played rugby since she was 19, Sereima has been looking at the Rugby World Cup as the perfect swansong to her international career.
An operations officer at Westpac Banking Corporation, she says for those players who work fulltime, the mothers and senior players in the squad, the delay was really disappointing initially.
“We had to take time to reset and reshuffle our plans to fit the new date – I needed a bit of time off just to re-adjust and find the motivation to get back at it.
“I was lucky my head coach and management team were very understanding on that part,” she adds.
Preparations have slowed compared to the past few months when the squad were getting ready to play this September, but Sereima adds all players are still being monitored.
“Daily training is still happening at centres across the country and the coaches and management have been strategising this year’s training plan towards the new date.”
Not wanting to get ahead of herself, Sereima says the main goal is to make the squad again and arrive in New Zealand to take part in the tournament.
“It would be the pinnacle of my rugby career if I made the World Cup.
“To get a Rugby World Cup match under your name is something to look forward too, as well as playing against the best players around the world.”
Mother and Fijiana player Akosita Tiva Ravato says squad members had sacrificed a lot leading up to the original World Cup start date.
“I had to reset goals, re-do plans for training, prioritise time with my kids – and I am currently job hunting to find financial stability to assist with the year-long preparations – I need to pay a babysitter for my boys and provide for my family,” Akosita says.
There is a bright side, however.
“It gives us more time now to better prepare ourselves physically in terms of fitness, body strength for different positions and team patterns and it allows more time to work on individual skills and areas of weakness individually and as a team.”
Mere Moto, who got her first cap for Fijiana 15s in 2016 and has been a consistent member of the squad since, says the World Cup postponement has made her question her commitment to the game.
The answer is her love of rugby, a game she began playing in her backyard as a youngster with her cousins.
While women’s rugby is taking off in Fiji and across the Pacific, Mere says the issue of inequality is still a challenge for players.
“Female rugby players are not treated the same as their male counterparts.
“We talk about an equal playing field, but it is not reflected in things happening on the ground.”
Female rugby players are challenged with labels society puts on them, Mere adds.
“There are people out there that still think females belong only in the kitchen and not out on the field – most people don’t realise women are capable of doing both and more.
“Lack of finances are another challenge faced by a lot of female rugby players – most of the girls are not employed so it puts a lot of the girls at a disadvantage.”
There are moves being made to address these challenges for female rugby players in Fiji, especially as they prepare to represent the Pacific nation on the world stage.
“The formation of the new Women’s High-Performance Academy is one way this is being addressed – and it is a good place to start in terms of gearing up to 2022 but in the future, especially by the next World Cup, players in the High-Performance Programme will definitely make a good impact,” Mere says.
Pacific Rugby Players (PRP) personal development manager Gaylene Osborne has been working with the Fijiana squad members and is in the process of developing a specific women’s personal development programme and education modules that reflect the needs and realities of female rugby players.
At the last Fiji Rugby Union Awards, Mere received the PRP Player Development Award, in recognition of all the hard work, sacrifices and commitment she has put into rugby.
“Like many of my teammates, I have been juggling work, schooling, training, representing Fiji.
“To me it showed how we as female rugby players can be resilient and are capable of achieving a lot of things when given the chance and opportunities.”
Visit PRP to learn how it represents the collective welfare of current and emerging professional Pacific Island rugby players across the world.