To say Ana Tuiketei doesn’t take any prisoners is not strictly true, as she deals with criminals on a day-to-day basis in the legal profession. But when it comes to pushing forward the case for more female involvement in decision-making positions in rugby, Tuiketei is unstoppable in her determination to instigate change.
Recently appointed as arbitrator on the General List of the Court of Arbitration for Sport, high-flyer Tuiketei is the only Fijian female accredited World Rugby Judicial Officer (JO), as well as being involved in a number of different capacities in education and the world of corporate governance.
Yet despite her long list of milestones and accomplishments, Tuiketei’s position as a JO during last year’s Skipper Cup campaign, the first with a properly structured disciplinary process, still raised some eyebrows – purely because she is a woman.
“I am involved in sports with my eyes open and am aware of the discrimination I face in terms of gender, culture, generational gaps and other capacity issues that come with hailing from a developing country. At times, when I do not get the support from our local rugby leadership panels, I have had to be my own cheerleader knowing that rugby historically has always been a male-dominated arena,” she pointed out.
“Last year, when I was presiding over Skipper Cup hearings, sometimes the players, managers or coaches would take two takes at me as they came into the room. Number one, I am a woman, number two, I am quite petite, and number three, there is cultural stereotyping that maybe a man should be sitting in my place.
“I am a senior lawyer here in Fiji, so it is a non-issue. But in the first couple of hearings, it felt like it was a bit of an issue. Now, I think I have the respect of the players and the lawyers that appear.”
Like in 2020, Tuiketei is again the only JO assigned to the whole of this year’s Skipper Cup, Fiji’s premier domestic competition, which runs until the end of July.
But the Suva-based lawyer hopes the need for her services will decrease in time as player discipline improves and more JOs are appointed.
Only two red cards were handed out in the opening round of the 2021 Skipper Cup, a vast improvement on the year before, with officials believing that the new disciplinary process is acting as a deterrent to foul play.
“I normally tell everyone who comes into a hearing, I hope we never meet again because when they’re sitting there, it is not a good thing,” she said with a smile on her face.
“Up until I came in, they never had hearings. I was the one that brought in a different system. Beforehand, they had a match official on the ground doing it after a game.
“We have noticed a change in attitude and professionalism in terms of how they (players) prepare for hearings, and the FRU have said they have seen an improvement in discipline.
“Right now, rugby is like a religion in the Pacific,” she added, “and it would be great if this World Rugby-type of system was in place in all levels of competition in Fiji, from schools rugby through to the main professionals, so players are used to the process and know what to expect.
“But there are only two of us JOs at the moment, and I am the only one doing it for the whole of the year. I can’t wait to get my ‘train the trainers’ certificate and have more JOs, specifically women.”
Part of Tuiketei’s World Rugby’s Executive Leadership Scholarship proposal was to produce a paper on female involvement in rugby – and whether there are any cultural and gender barriers to women getting involved on an executive level.
As an arbitrator, Tuiketei knows how to skillfully manage difficult situations, but even strong characters occasionally need reassurance from time to time.
Her friendship with fellow Fijian and World Rugby Council member, Cathy Wong, is valued greatly, and her husband, former HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series referee James Bolabiu, is a constant source of support.
Meanwhile, Singapore RFU’s Wang Shao Ing is another welcome addition to that network, as her scholarship mentor.
“I am quite fortunate that here, in Fiji, I have got a World Rugby Council member, Cathy Wong, as a friend and a colleague of mine. She has always supported me; she sits on various sporting boards here in Fiji and is the one that encouraged me to apply for the scholarship. She was so pleased when I got it.
“We have also got a WhatsApp group of women leaders in Oceania, where we share ideas and breakthrough stories. I am really grateful for that because as a woman leader you can sometimes feel isolated.
“I totally embrace whatever networks there are. I am very excited because the World Rugby scholarship allows for mentorship, so having access to not only information but pools of well-qualified people as well, brings another aspect of networking.”
Shortly, Tuiketei will start an online course in Business Administration in Sports, in addition to all her other roles. But good luck to anyone telling the irrepressible Tuiketei she should maybe slow down.
“The passion to see gender equity in sports, particularly in rugby, has always been a motivator and I look forward to the day we normalise women’s leadership in sports.”