Former test second-row Simon Raiwalui came into his job as the Fiji Rugby high performance manager in January determined to bring equality across the board in both the men’s and women’s programmes.
The inaugural Fiji Rugby high performance women’s academy, announced last week, was a hugely important step in that process.
Involving the 30 best female players in the country, the academy has a key role to play. That’s not only in helping the national women’s 15s team prepare for their first-ever involvement in a Rugby World Cup in New Zealand next year, but also in overcoming the gender stereotyping that has historically held back the progress of women’s sport on the island.
The women’s academy players will now be treated in exactly the same way as their male counterparts financially and also in terms of the level of coaching, medical provision and off-field support they’re able to access.
“When I came into the job, I wanted to get alignment across the programmes and one of the areas lagging a bit behind and not getting the same attention was the women’s programme,” Raiwalui said.
“Obviously, COVID-19 has put a bit of a spanner in the mix but we’re really proud to get this up and running during this tough period thanks to some great work from the staff.
“It is a huge opportunity not just for women’s rugby but women’s sport as well. Getting inclusivity across all programmes is a great achievement.”
A historic moment and milestone achievement for @fijirugby with the induction of 30 young women in our first Fiji Women's High Performance Rugby set up. Now the hard work begins for the #ROADTOWRWC2021 pic.twitter.com/9i03MoTJuq— Koli Sewabu (@Koli_Sewabu) July 8, 2020
Diversity of talent
The first influx of players into the academy were selected based on feedback from several coaches from both the men’s and women’s programmes.
“We decided to go with a mix of senior talent and some really young ladies with a lot of potential,” said Raiwalui, 45.
“We’ve picked this 30 as the ones to take it forward. As with any programme, you want the best people involved. Every lady I speak to is stoked to be a part of it.
“These ladies have the first opportunity to cement their position but with the local competitions starting up, we’re looking for talent to stand out and put pressure on the ladies in the squad.
“It is an evolving programme. Some of them may not be suited to the intensity of training, so it is very adaptable and if we need to make changes, we will.”
The academy group will meet in Suva once a month for a two-day training camp and will also undertake two rugby/fitness sessions per week in their respective regions.
“There’s a lot of diversity amongst the squad. We’ve got girls in school, the youngest is 17, and we’ve got people in the forces and mothers, too. That’s all part of the challenge,” Raiwalui added.
“We need to facilitate training for every group. Sometimes we’ll have to train at 5.30 in the morning because some of the ladies have to go to work, and sometimes we’ll have to train later on because some girls have to finish school first.
“The big thing for us is this is the start, there are obviously going to be hiccups and growing pains but the whole goal is to give young girls in a village or a school that little star to look at and think, could this be a pathway for me to make rugby a career and play for Fijiana?
“We want to develop these ladies off the field as well. If they want to get access to education, we’ll help them out; if they want to get a job, we’ll try and help them there; if they want to get into rugby coaching or training, we can look at the opportunities there.
“For me, this is an essential pathway, we want to grow from the bottom up.”
Setting the scene
The success of the academy does not rest on results at Rugby World Cup 2021, it is a long-term project to build the strength of the elite player pool in Fiji.
However, qualification against Samoa last December has given them an opportunity to mix it with the best in the world and make a big impression on the tournament.
“Part of this programme is building their belief, that this is a quality team, and getting them as fit as possible and putting them in the best position to succeed,” acknowledged Raiwalui, who played in Rugby World Cup 1999.
“They want to be trailblazers and set the scene for future girls and ladies to go into the programme.
“There is no sense of us going over there (to New Zealand) just to be involved, we want to compete with the best of them.
“It’s going to take a lot of work because this is the start of the programme, but they are all committed and we’re looking forward to it.”