When Ana Roqica leads her Fijiana team onto the Deodoro Stadium pitch on Saturday in the women's rugby sevens event, it is hoped she will inspire more girls back home to take up the sport.

On-field success in their opening Rio 2016 match against USA and over the course of the weekend will certainly help the Fiji Rugby Union in their bid to grow the game, especially if Fijiana can create history and deliver the country's first Olympic medal of any colour.

“The nation will stop when they play. Girls everywhere will look at them and think, 'If she can do that then I can do anything',” said Fiji men’s legend Seremaia Bai, who now acts as an ambassador for women’s rugby in Fiji. 

GROWING THE GAME

Big strides have already been made to attract more female players in the Oceania region as a whole over the last few years with World Rugby’s Get Into Rugby mass participation programme complementing the Pacific in Union Programme, which is a partnership between Oceania Rugby, the Australian Rugby Union and the Australian Government and is aimed at improving the lives of Pacific Island communities through rugby.

Running side by side, the programmes have massively increased player participation among girls, with the take up around the 20,000 mark in each of the programmes.

However, Fiji Rugby Union women's development officer Vela Naucukidi feels there is still a lot more room for growth, especially now that girls are alive to the possibility of becoming an Olympian just like Roqica.

“In the end, we want more girls and women to invite their friends and sisters and cousins to come along and try the World Rugby programme, Get Into Rugby,” Naucukidi said.

“We want parents to know that when girls tell them they are doing Get Into Rugby at school, they are safe, they are with their friends and they are having fun. Then we want to make sure is it easy for them to be involved at club level too."

BREAKING DOWN BARRIERS

The opportunities don’t stop there. In the long term the Fiji Rugby Union wants to build new partnerships that address a range of women’s issues. 

“Rugby is already breaking down gender equity barriers just by giving girls and women a chance to experience the solidarity of being in a team and the challenge of trying something new,” Naucukidiadded.

“We want rugby to open doors to more new opportunities for girls and women. We want rugby to also give them the chance to lead, run their own business or contribute more to the community. We believe rugby develops the complete woman.”

The Fiji Rugby Union and Oceania Rugby are partnering with the University of the South Pacific to research the barriers and motivations to playing rugby by surveying and interviewing women who play the sport, cusp players (adolescent girls who are physically active but don’t play rugby) and their gatekeepers (parents, teachers, pastors). 

HIGH ESTEEM

"The research that has been done so far has given us some really specific ideas about the type of activities to prioritise,” said Kylie Bates, director of an agency called GameChangers and a consultant to Oceania Rugby.  

“We are learning that rugby players are held in high esteem and have the potential to be strong influencers. They are seen as being smart, confident and brave. At the same time, we know people are concerned about the safety and well-being of girls so we need to do things to address that such as making sure the coaches and officials are well trained and increase the scope of partnership with organisations like Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre who helps rugby address things like safeguarding children and member protection."

The findings of the research will be unveiled at University of the South Pacific’s Rugby Symposium on 8 September.

"Fijiana are trail blazers. They started playing rugby when not many other women did and they made their way to compete in the Olympics. We honour their effort and we want to make it much easier for the next group of women who are coming through"

Fiji Rugby Union development manager Sale Sorovaki

TRAILBLAZERS

The Fiji Rugby Union will train men and women who are influential in the rugby community to work in schools and villages to not only run Get Into Rugby programmes but also conduct talanoa (discussion) sessions about gender roles and opportunities for girls and women in all areas of life. 

“Fijiana are trail blazers. They started playing rugby when not many other women did and they made their way to compete in the Olympics. We honour their effort and we want to make it much easier for the next group of women who are coming through,” said Sale Sorovaki, the Fiji Rugby Union's development manager

“Most of all, we want more girls and women to enjoy the solidarity, challenge and excitement in this game. We want to make rugby welcoming to everyone while improving things for the players that have forged the way.”