'Unstoppable' Paule Ella Guei awarded for promoting women's rugby in Ivory Coast

One of the faces of Rugby Africa's 'Try And Stop Us' campaign, the player-turned-referee has received the Sports + Award in recognition of her work developing women's rugby in the Ivory Coast.

If some people wonder how Paule Ella Guei was able to quickly impose women's rugby in Ivory Coast, the answer is simple: it's because she is Unstoppable. She is also inexhaustible when she talks about her career and how women's rugby came into being in this corner of West Africa. She has also become unmissable in the eyes of many.

Guei was not born into rugby. She discovered the game in 2010 when she was a student at the Institute of Sport in Abidjan, thanks to her sports teacher. Guei was playing handball at the time.

“I came to training one night to see if I was going to like it,” she said. “And there, I saw the atmosphere that reigned and I said to myself: 'Wow!' I had never experienced anything like that with handball. And I came back every time, just to watch the vibe. And by dint of watching, my teacher suggested that I should try and that's how I came to rugby."

Guei finds it hard to describe this atmosphere, although it was one she felt strongly, deep within herself. “It was something very fraternal. It cannot be explained, we need to live it to understand," she explained.

"You see people who, after grappling in a match, come back with a smile, greet each other, get together, even apologise for what they did during the match! And then everyone gathers around a drink. It really touched me and that's how I started to get a taste for it and stayed there."

Overcoming prejudice

But away from playing, it was in the direction of officiating that Guei was quickly turned. “The same teacher who had guided me towards rugby then offered me [the chance] to promote the game in refereeing," she said.

"But, it's not the same at all! It was really complicated for me at first, but he reassured me by telling me that I was a great lady, that I had a big heart ... and a strong behaviour."

So, Guei did not let herself down and took up the challenge. She began to learn with young players, then was sent to the seniors where she started on the sidelines.

But, when the union decided to put her "in the middle" things did not go as smoothly as they had hoped.

"Surrounded by strong guys and me very small? Honestly, I didn't think I could do it,” she laughed. “The first time, the outcome was not what I expected, because when men saw a woman in the middle of the field refereeing the match, they were not happy.

"They wondered what I was doing there. They made fun of me. Men were saying: 'What will she teach us? We are already experts in rugby. It's not worth it, the place of women is in the kitchen, with their plates!' The supporters laughed and laughed. In fact, they just came out of curiosity to look at me."

But by dint of encouragement from her coaches, determination and being debriefed on each of her matches in order to improve, Guei managed to win. “Once, after a match, young girls approached and they said to me: 'Big sister, we saw your journey and despite everything that is said, you never gave up, you're never discouraged, you have always come. How do you do that? We would like to be like you, take part in women's rugby, be referees'."

Those words gave her wings. This story triggered the second stage of her adventure.

Rugby sections in every school

In October 2020, when Rugby Africa launched a search for its own 'Unstoppables', during the second phase of World Rugby's 'Try And Stop Us' campaign, the unions worked hard to find the right ambassadors to spread the right words.

The Ivorian Rugby Federation (FIR) found in Paule Ella Guei the ideal candidate. The sports teacher had until then insisted on staying in her home town, 45km from the capital city Abidjan, coming to referee her matches in the city before leaving just after to return to her province. But her new Unstoppable status changed everything.

“It really boosted me. I didn't know I could do so many things,” she admitted. “Today, as an Unstoppable, I travel through all primary and secondary schools, I set up rugby sections in every school, college and high school because rugby must start at a young age. I meet principals, sports teachers.

"The projects are on track. And through my work, people noticed that a women's rugby commission existed in the union. This is how I got the prize."

The prize is the SportsPlus Award, which has never recognised the game of rugby until now. In a few weeks, Paule has thus become a media figure, the face of women's rugby in Ivory Coast.

Her dynamism, her joie de vivre and her repartee have made her essential, unmissable for promoting the game.

A few weeks afterwards the 'Break Down Barriers, Experience the World of Rugby' tour was launched as an extension of the highly successful Ivory Coast Rugby Project, and took her to many Ivorian towns.

'People didn't know that ladies could also play rugby'

“I would like to thank all the people who initiated the Unstoppable project because it allowed me to discover who I really was and what I could do. Today I do things that I didn't think I was capable of,” Guei said.

“I did not expect to be welcomed like that because it is a sport that was unknown by people. People didn't know that ladies could play rugby too. When they saw a lady who was so mediatised, who was Unstoppable, in addition to be an ambassador of women's rugby, they were stunned. Today, women come to see us, they call us in numbers."

The television shows are calling for her and Guei relishes it because she can get her message across: no, the place of women is not only in the kitchen. “I tell women that they can do more than I do, go beyond what I do today. And on hearing that, they scramble to come and learn, play and discover,” she smiled.

Projects are linked to initiate women's rugby in all Ivorian territories, such as the ignition of a women's tournament, with the full support of the union and its president, Dr Elvis Tano, who looks with envy at the progress made in not much time.

“I'm not just going to see the girls to take them to rugby. I also meet the clubs to tell the girls: don't limit yourself by playing there, try to set goals, think big, think high. Come and play, but also be regular in training.

"I was able to talk to the various coaches and managers to boost the girls because until then, there was lax training; they lacked motivation. The goal is to put the girls in condition: they need to work hard, but we also have to create good conditions to set up elite teams. For example, Ivory Coast will participate in the qualifiers for the Olympic Games."

To fulfill her new commitments, Guei was forced to adapt her work obligations. The sports teacher changed supervisory ministry, moving under the flag of sports rather than that of National Education.

"A team at the union level will train quality educators to be able to reach out to children," announced the young woman who, in addition, was co-opted on the Communication & Public Relations sub-committee of Rugby Africa’s Women’s Advisory Committee in January 2021. A total commitment.


Last updated: Feb 10, 2021, 5:53:32 PM
Josephine Sukkar with Buildcorp Super W and Wallaroos players
wr-news Women's Development Women's wr-women-news wr-women-news-power wr-news-oceania
Josephine Sukkar hopes to use historic appointment to help keep Australia mentally and physically healthy
We talk to the first female chair of the Australian Sports Commission about her hopes for the role, and her work in rugby.
Springbok Women
wr-news Women's wr-women-news RWC2021 Rugby World Cup wr-women-news-2021 wr-news-oceania wr-news-olympics-w
Springbok Women ready to step out of the shadows at Rugby World Cup 2021
South Africa’s new women’s rugby high performance manager Lynne Cantwell hopes Rugby World Cup 2021 will help inspire a new generation of players.
Kelly Brazier playing Hong Kong at RWC 2017
Women's Development Women's sevens-news-women sevens wr-women-news-2021 wr-news wr-women-news Tournament News RWC2021 Rugby World Cup
Kelly Brazier “pumped” ahead of potential Olympic-Rugby World Cup double
We caught up with the two-time Rugby World Cup winner, who is hoping to play at both Tokyo 2020 and New Zealand 2021.
Emirates Airline Dubai Rugby Sevens 2019 - Women's
sevens-news wr-women-news-sevens Women's sevens-news-women sevens wr-news-sevens wr-news-olympics-w Olympics wr-news wr-women-news
USA sevens star Naya Tapper: We want to bring back Olympic gold
As rugby sevens returns from a year-long lay-off in Madrid this weekend, USA star Naya Tapper says she is “super-excited” to be finally back doing what she does best – tearing up the rugby field.
Women's International: Spain v Scotland
wr-news Women's wr-women-news sevens Feature RWC2021 Rugby World Cup wr-women-news-2021
Women’s Rugby Europe Championship: Spain ready to start their road to Rugby World Cup 2021
Las Leonas have a key game against Russia this weekend in Guadalajara in the Women’s Rugby Europe Championship, aiming to continue chasing their dream of qualifying for Rugby World Cup 2021.
Liza Burgess Ronan O'Gara Hall of Fame induction
wr-women-news-coach wr-news Women's Development Women's wr-women-news Tournament News Podcasts
Rugby’s Greatest Podcast: Who are the best Six Nations leaders?
The first episode of the new World Rugby podcast welcomes Ronan O’Gara, Ian McGeechan, Liza Burgess, Conor O’Shea and Andy Gomarsall to talk about leadership.
Bella Milo playing for Valley
Women's Development Women's wr-women-news-2021 wr-women-news-coach wr-news wr-women-news Feature Tournament News RWC2021 Rugby World Cup
Bella Milo: Rugby World Cup 2021 could have huge impact on women’s rugby in Hong Kong and Pacific Islands
The Samoa fly-half talks to World Rugby about New Zealand 2021, coaching and how she hopes to “give back” to the game.
Spain women's sevens
sevens-news Women's sevens-news-women sevens wr-news-sevens Olympics wr-news wr-women-news sevens-news-men
Madrid Sevens: All you need to know about the Tokyo Olympics warm-up tournament
Your guide to the return of rugby sevens, including who is playing, what format it will take and its importance to the participating teams.
Alhambra Nievas - Emirates Airline Dubai Rugby Sevens 2017 - Women's
Olympics wr-women-news-sevens wr-news Women's wr-women-news wr-news-matchofficials wr-women-news-2021 wr-news-olympics-w
Pioneering Olympic female referee Alhambra Nievas excited by the next generation
As the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games draw ever closer, we talk to Alhambra Nievas about her experience of refereeing the women’s gold medal match in Rio and look at how far female officials have come since that momentous occasion.
Paule Ella Guei
wr-news Women's Unstoppables wr-women-news Feature
'Unstoppable' Paule Ella Guei awarded for promoting women's rugby in Ivory Coast
One of the faces of Rugby Africa's 'Try And Stop Us' campaign, the player-turned-referee has received the Sports + Award in recognition of her work developing women's rugby in the Ivory Coast.