Lailanie Burnes has played a pivotal role in the growth of women’s rugby in Fiji since relocating to Nadi from Australia 12 years ago.

Burnes, whose mother Nanise is from Nairai in the Lomaiviti Islands, founded Nadi Blazers Women Rugby Club, the region’s first female team, in 2012. The club has gone on to produce a number of Fijiana sevens and 15s players.

One of those is Burnes herself, who has captained Fiji’s 15s side and helped the team qualify for Rugby World Cup 2021.

Playing in the Pacific nation’s first women’s Rugby World Cup campaign in New Zealand next year remains an achievable goal for the prop, but she is already taking steps to ensure that rugby remains in her life once the time comes to hang up her boots.

In March, Burnes completed the Level 3 Coaching Award, on which she was assessed by World Rugby Master Trainer Richard Skelly, while she has also qualified as a World Rugby Coach Educator.

“I was so happy to be able to pass the [Level 3] course and it’s been something that I’ve been looking forward to doing and working hard towards,” Burnes told World Rugby. 

“I’m really grateful to my mentors who have helped me along the way and I’ve had some really great teachers from Oceania Rugby and Fiji Rugby, and of course the master trainers as well. 

“Also not forgetting all the coaches I’ve played under over the years in addition to those whom we undertook this coaching journey with. It’s been a very educating, challenging and rewarding experience.”

Leading by example

Burnes is keen to show women in Fiji that they can succeed in a male-dominated space such as rugby and would welcome the opportunity to coach men as well as women.

“In terms of being a coach I’m just going out there to help my players be the best they can be whilst having fun enjoying the sport I love,” she added.

“When you get on the field you’re coaching a player, it’s not about putting people into a box as a male or female. 

“Out there everyone plays the same code, has the same rules and it’s all about helping to develop the player on and off the field to be the best version of themselves.”

Burnes is not ready to stop playing just yet, though, and is determined to keep fit during the current lockdown in Fiji in order to help the team make an impression at its first Rugby World Cup.

“It’s something that we’ve all been really working hard towards, especially us senior players in the team,” she said. “I think this’ll probably be the last opportunity that some of us have to be able to go out and to be able to compete and represent our country at a women’s Rugby World Cup. 

“So, this is something that we’re all really, really striving for and it’s something that we want to go across to Rugby World Cup not just to make [up] the numbers. We want to be able to go out there and go all the way through. So we’re serious, we’re putting in the hard yards.”

Burnes fell in love with rugby as a child watching matches with her father, Colin and sister, Leonie while hearing stories about the former’s playing days in Sydney.

The Fijiana prop grew up in Australia and having been given the opportunity to pick up an oval ball at high school, went on to play club and representative rugby alongside Leonie. 

‘Trail-blazer for women in Fiji’

That passion for the game travelled with her to Fiji where, after a couple of training sessions with a men’s club in Namaka, Burnes decided to set up Nadi Blazers with her late aunt, Pat. 

“When I came to [Nadi] I saw that there was no women’s rugby club out here, and so I wanted to be able to introduce to other girls this sport that I absolutely love,” Burnes said.

“It was small numbers to start with but we were quite consistent and we were able to go out there and to really try to encourage girls to come and try this new sport.”

Burnes and her team-mates met with resistance in those early days, some of which was verbal, due to negative stereotypes associated with women who played rugby.

The prop is happy to report that attitudes have begun to change as Fijiana have made headway on the international stage, in both sevens and 15s. But it is clear that Burnes too has played her part.

“Lailanie is a trail-blazer for women’s rugby and for women in Fiji and the region,” Oceania Rugby Women’s Development Lead, Erin Hatton said. 

“With a rare ability to lift up those around her and a willingness to step up and contribute to the many different communities to which she belongs, she is a natural leader.”

Burnes admits she is humbled by such praise and is eager to share the acclaim with her peers.

“There are so many amazing women in rugby in Fiji, both on and off the field, and not forgetting our wonderful women ruggers that came before us and paved the way,” she said.

“For the small part I’ve played, to be acknowledged with these inspirational trail-blazers is truly humbling.”

Photos: Fiji Rugby Union