Acee San Juan is a self-confessed “rugby nerd”. Since being introduced to the game while playing touch at university, the Filipino has rarely been seen without an oval ball.
Becoming a fan almost instantly, San Juan threw herself into her new passion as she subsequently segued from social player to international, coach, referee, educator and development officer.
Last month, she was promoted to the role of General Manager for Development, Competition and Training and Education at the Philippines Rugby Football Union (PRFU), taking on some of the roles previously held by fellow GM Jake Letts.
It has been a busy first few weeks in the role for San Juan, who believes her experiences over the last decade or so stand her in good stead as she attempts to help the PRFU deal with the impact of the pandemic.
“It seems as though I went through the ranks,” San Juan told World Rugby.
“I use those experiences in my position now and I know that it's valuable because I know how it feels to be a spectator, a match official, etc. So, that's what I'm bringing now in my position.”
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Providing opportunities for all
Her knowledge of different roles within the game might be perfect for her work at the PRFU but she admits it can make watching matches a long process.
“I’m a bit of a rugby nerd,” she added. “First, I watch it as a spectator, then I watch it as a player, then I watch it as a referee, then I watch it as a coach.
“So, maybe, I watch a single game at least four times wearing different hats. I want to see the perspective of every role.”
Perhaps the biggest challenge facing San Juan as she begins life as a GM at the PRFU concerns returning participation numbers to pre-pandemic levels.
Competitive rugby has been back up and running in the Philippines since March but San Juan admitted that COVID-19 has had an impact on the game at all levels, particularly at youth and school-age level.
“Since we're just returning from the pandemic, we really want to re-engage our rugby community,” she said.
“Hopefully from there we build more people, and we build more participants, we build more coaches, match officials, and I think once we have a stronger workforce, then it'll lift up the quality of our competitions. If we have better coaches, you have more participants, you have more players.
“Also, we just have to ensure that there's opportunities for all. The Philippines is an archipelago, with different islands, so making sure that all the regions have equitable resources and opportunities, that's my main goal, I think.”
Empowered women helping each other
San Juan has been able to approach her work with confidence thanks in no small part to the help and advice given to her by two significant friends and mentors.
PRFU president Ada Milby and Lao Rugby Federation CEO Viengsamai Souksavanh have both helped San Juan on her journey to becoming a female leader.
“It helped me develop who I am right now and helped me be at this stage,” she said.
“Having these people around me and also the Grassroots to Global girls, it’s all empowered women and we’re helping each other, building each other up and making sure that we have the right support system.”
San Juan added: “Having [Milby and Souksavanh] in leadership positions, when I saw them there, [I thought] if they can make it, why can’t I?
“It shouldn’t be a question of gender. As long as you have the credibility, you have the skills to do it then I think gender shouldn’t be an issue.
“So, I think having them there gave me more confidence that if they can make it, I can also make it.”
Although she is only starting out in life in leadership, San Juan is conscious that she has a responsibility to help more women follow in her footsteps.
One tool that she can use to do that is Grassroots to Global, a ChildFund Rugby programme that seeks to work with unions to provide female community leaders with the ability to create change.
“It's really important because it gives a platform for our young female leaders to connect with each other, build a network and build ideas and make action plans, and create activities that will enable the clubs to grow more female participation within their clubs,” she said.
“When I started playing rugby more than 10 years ago, there were no female match officials. I had a female coach, but she was from Australia.
“It was hard knowing that there was no one we could really relate to, we’re really a small group of girls.
“Eventually you see female coaches, female referees, females in administrative positions, it makes it easier for us knowing that we have a support system. We know that we have people there who can relate to us.”