When Cybele Druma applied for the World Rugby Women’s Executive Leadership Scholarship she did so in hope rather than expectation.
Having been alerted to the programme by the Papua New Guinea Rugby Union (PNGRU) with time ticking towards the application deadline, Druma was unsure what the scholarship entailed and anxious she would be deemed too old to be successful.
“I just thought ‘ok, let me do this and see what happens – if it happens, it happens’,” she admitted.
“I was of the view that such awards should be given to the younger leaders coming through rugby in PNG.”
So it was with both “elation and surprise” that Druma greeted the announcement in March that she was one of 14 female leaders accepted into the programme’s second intake.
And having now had more than six months to digest the unexpected news, she believes the scholarship has already had a positive impact in terms of showing other Papua New Guinean women what they can achieve in the game.
“Now that women in Papua New Guinea know that they can win scholarships it just firms the belief that there is a future in rugby and that women’s contributions to the sport are valued,” Druma said.
“World Rugby acknowledges and values women’s leadership, so that’s a great incentive for women to start stepping up here in Papua New Guinea and that is exactly what is happening.
“The effect of this scholarship has been such that a lot more women have come to the fore in terms of their leadership in the sport, in all capacities, like match officials, coaches, medics, administrators, board executives. And this is a fantastic thing for rugby in Papua New Guinea.”
Introducing women's rugby to PNG
That has not always been the case. Although the PNGRU was founded in 1963, and became a member of World Rugby in 1993, it was not until 2006 that Druma helped introduce the women’s game to the country.
Competition from rugby league, a lack of government funding and archaic views on female sport had, according to Druma, helped to stifle the growth of the women’s game before a recent revival.
“It’s the stereotypes which are typically held by the men and even some women,” she explained.
“It took almost 50 years before we had women’s rugby introduced here in the country. That was through myself in 2006, and we’ve not really achieved as many milestones as we had the potential to.
“One of the other things apart from the mindset issue has sadly been the politics, it’s quite rife. That has been a key factor in the decline of women’s rugby union.
“We had close to 1,000 [female players] just in the capital city alone in the early years, and other provinces also starting to get involved. But when the politics began that just caused everything to come to a complete standstill and it’s only in the last three years that serious attempts at the local level are being made to revive the women’s code to its former glory days.
“So through my association (NCD Rugby Union), at the local level, we’re trying to deal with the politics and build a more inclusive culture around rugby, so people not just play the sport but feel like they belong, and that their voices are respected and valued.
“We’re starting slow and steady in this new vision for rugby.”
Overcoming female stereotypes
Rugby League has become more popular than union among women in Papua New Guinea, primarily due to the structure that has been put in place.
But buoyed by success on the pitch, attitudes towards women’s rugby in the country are beginning to shift.
Their women’s sevens side came within one game of reaching the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Oceania Rugby Women’s Sevens Championship in Suva at the start of November, losing a qualifying final to hosts and HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series core team Fiji.
Over the last 11 days, Papua New Guinea’s women’s 15s team have been competing in the Oceania Rugby Women’s Championship in Lautoka, Fiji, with a place at Rugby World Cup 2021 on offer.
“Especially because our national sevens team has done quite well on the world stage, that’s really where a lot of the mindsets have started to change,” Druma said.
“Thanks to TV and the Internet, this has enabled the education and exposure to happen around the country. But these mediums can also be a curse – especially when our teams are losing.
“We’ve found that even in very culturally engrained provinces, in terms of views and perspectives on women playing rugby, we’re starting to see a gradual shift towards acceptance of women playing rugby.
“This is also because the women and a few of the men folk – and we’ve really got to give credit to the men folk, who are championing women’s rugby across the country and driving the women’s code – it’s because of that partnership and support, that women are gaining confidence to step up now, in the numbers and say ‘Hey, we belong on the field too’.
“Women are now beginning to take ownership and leadership of the women’s programme, as well as the men’s programme, especially in areas where not long ago there would have been strong opposition to women taking part in rugby in any capacity.”
Druma knows her work is far from done. As part of her scholarship she plans to visit Iran in order to “see exactly how they’re able to grow women’s rugby in such rigid conditions, so that I might be able to find some ideas and inspiration in how we can do it better here”.
Grassroots remains her focus and Druma hopes to see women and girls playing rugby in all of Papua New Guinea's regions in the next two decades.
However, having competed at Rugby World Cup Sevens 2018 in San Francisco, a place at Tokyo 2020 remains a possibility. Papua New Guinea will contest a repechage in June, and Druma dreams of seeing even greater success in her lifetime.
“When I first introduced the sport for the women’s code, in 2006, I was of the strong belief that the women would qualify for a World Cup in a shorter space of time than the men and sure enough they did [both teams appeared at RWC Sevens 2018],” she said.
“If we’re talking the next 10 to 20 years, I definitely would love to see the Papua New Guinea women’s team win a World Cup.
“Obviously we have a lot of work to do in terms of putting the structures in place, and having the necessary vision at the national governing level in order to achieve that kind of end result, but it is absolutely possible, and is one of the things that I would like to see.
“I’d also love to see a woman take on the presidency of the governing body. I truly believe in the qualities of women’s leadership and in order to take our code to the next level, both in PNG and on the world stage, it is imperative that we have a healthy mix of both men and women on the board.”