Talei and Vacalaini hope to capitalise on Fijiana success having found confidence from rugby

We caught up with the two Youth Unstoppables from Fiji to discuss their journeys in the game and dreams of emulating their Olympic medal winning countrywomen.

As Reapi Ulunisau outpaced Helena Rowland to score the try that ultimately sealed her nation an Olympic bronze medal in July, it was not only the Fijians inside Tokyo Stadium who were smiling.

Watching on from more than 7,000 kilometres away in Nadi, Talei and Vacalaini were both on the edge of their seats as Ulunisau carved a line through the Great Britain defence and dotted down.

It was the culmination of months of sacrifice for the Fijiana players and coaches, who had become arguably the breakout stars of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.

Exactly how big an impact the country’s first female Olympic medal winners have only time will tell, but it is clear the team’s success is already inspiring a new generation of women’s rugby players in Fiji.

“It encouraged the whole [team to] train harder so that we could represent Fiji, maybe in the next Olympics,” Talei told World Rugby. 

“It was a proud moment for the women of Fiji.”

Talei’s fellow Youth Unstoppable, Vacalaini added: “It actually encouraged me to keep on moving [forward].”

Both Talei and Vacalaini now harbour ambitions of representing their country at the Olympics and emulating their medal winning heroes.

The two teenagers know exactly what they need to do to follow in the footsteps of Ulunisau and her fellow World Rugby Women’s Sevens Player of the Year 2021 in association with Mastercard nominee, Alowesi Nakoci.

“To continue training,” Talei said, before Vacalaini added: “Just keep doing what we’re doing.”

JetSet lifestyle

Had Ulunisau or Nakoci looked out of the window as the plane that brought them home from Tokyo descended into Nadi International Airport, they would have seen the pitch on which Talei and Vacalaini’s dreams are taking shape.

Tucked behind the runway of Fiji’s main international hub is a patch of grass that JetSet Junior Rugby Club calls home.

Set up in 2018 with the support of Nadi Rugby, the Fiji Rugby Union and the Get Into Rugby programme, the club aims to provide young boys and girls in the country’s third-largest urban area with the opportunity to play the game they love.

JetSet, named in recognition of its location, has done exactly that for both Talei and Vacalaini, offering a setting in which they feel confident to be themselves and have fun.

Talei is the older of the two friends. She will turn 16 in January and has played rugby since she was six, although it was after she attended a Get Into Rugby session three years later that she began to take the game seriously.

“It’s enjoyable playing rugby,” Talei said. “Most girls didn't really play rugby before they first introduced tag. 

“Girls were not playing tag or rugby at that time because they said that boys were only allowed to play rugby at that time.

“Now there's more girls [that] are into rugby. That's the change that I've seen so far.”

Talei says that playing rugby “makes me feel happy” and the confidence she takes onto the pitch has helped her compete against players three or four years older. 

“It’s good to be part of a team and playing with the other girls makes it more interesting,” she added.

“It has taught us a lot of life values.”

Her father is a coach at JetSet and both he and Talei’s mother are hugely encouraging of their daughter’s sporting passion.

“How the girls played in Tokyo has actually changed the landscape of women’s rugby here in Fiji,” he said.

“The men in Fiji, you know, culturally they always say that girls are not grown up to play rugby. Mums and the dads, they say, ‘Hey, why not?’ 

“You know, my daughter can also beat New Zealand probably in the future. She can be part of that team, so everyone is inspired.”

Beating the bullies

Vacalaini is someone who has benefitted directly from the change in attitude towards young women and girls playing rugby in Fiji.

Having been introduced to the game through a Get Into Rugby programme when she was nine, it was the first sport she excelled at and became a release from school, where she was bullied.

“I was able to actually express myself better at rugby,” she said. “I liked being around the coach and being able to hold the ball.”

Five years since first picking up an oval ball, Vacalaini remains as passionate about rugby as when she first discovered it. 

Her mother even admits that her daughter “harasses” her to make sure that she never misses a training session.

“Most people think it’s very violent, but it’s also good to express yourself in other ways than just conflict,” Vacalaini said.

“It puts me in my comfort zone. Most of the time in the classroom when I was little, I was bullied.

“When I played rugby, it helped me out with my confidence, which I am really grateful for. I just love the feel of the wind coming through me, being able to run with the ball.

“It feels like the team is actually counting on me.”

Both Vacalaini and Talei hope to encourage more women and girls to play rugby through the Youth Unstoppables campaign, and believe that Rugby World Cup 2021, playing in 2022, will showcase the game still further.

Fijiana will make their debut at the women’s edition when they run out against England at Eden Park in October, and the two teenagers will be paying close attention.

“It’s another opportunity to help the team improve on what they lack, and it might actually encourage more girls just to get into rugby,” Vacalaini said.

One day, it might be Talei and Vacalaini inspiring others in the famous white jersey.

Rugby has helped Youth Unstoppables Talei and Vacalaini in different ways

Talei, 15, first picked up a rugby ball when she was six and started to take the game seriously when she was introduced to tag through a Get Into Rugby programme.

The game has instilled in her a set of values and enabled her to gain the confidence to express herself on the pitch, sometimes against much older opponents.

Fourteen-year-old Vacalaini, meanwhile, was nine when she first encountered the game –through a Get Into Rugby session.

Vacalaini did not consider herself to be good at sport prior to picking up an oval ball and struggled at school due to bullying. However, rugby has provided a space in which she has been able to improve her self-esteem.

Like Talei, and her idol Portia Woodman, Vacalaini feels confident when running with the ball and the game has allowed her to escape the troubles she encountered at school.

Both teenagers now play for JetSet Junior Rugby Club, where Talei’s father is a coach, and harbour ambitions to represent Fiji at the Olympic Games.

Last updated: Jan 14, 2022, 7:24:11 AM
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