Inspired by Fijiana’s bronze Olympic medal in Tokyo, Ashleigh Wihongi-Willis doesn’t see any reason why the Cooks Islands cannot achieve similar success in women’s rugby sevens on the global stage.
Less than two months into her role as Cook Islands Rugby Union President, the 35-year-old is making it her job to ensure the structures are in place to support players eligible to play for the South Pacific nation – in men’s and women’s rugby – and harness their potential.
Women’s rugby in the Cook Islands, Wihongi-Willis says, has been neglected for too long, and she is looking to address that – with World Rugby’s help.
“I am really proud to be a part of something like World Rugby that has systems in place to support women in rugby because, in the Pacific, there are a lot of sports that don’t do that,” she said.
“My time on the board in the last two years has been in women’s development, so women’s rugby is a huge passion of mine.
“During COVID, our women’s numbers have increased in sevens by 10 per cent and I really want to retain those numbers and give them a pathway to succeed.
“When it comes to women’s rugby here, we are kind of starting from scratch again because it has been left for so long.
“I would like to see us in the next two to three years become competitive. That timeframe is much shorter than for our male counterparts because of the talent that we have, especially around sevens.
“In the next five years, we have the opportunity to be something of an international sensation in women’s rugby. Between New Zealand, Australia and here, there are more female Cook Island eligible players than male ones; there is a lot of talent out there that I am excited to tap into.
“With pretty much no resources they have managed to enjoy success at the Oceania Sevens group for multiple years which is really exciting; they have done it on fundraising and getting there with their kids on the plane.
“So they have overcome massive obstacles to do that and, for me, if I can take some of those obstacles away, that is how they are going to succeed internationally.
“Obviously, Fiji has got a bigger population but a lot of those women are locally based, and that’s what’s really exciting for me here in the Cook Islands, to know that if we get our infrastructure right, that is a possibility for us too.”
Closing the gap
While the focus in women’s rugby remains on sevens for the time being, the Cook Islands men’s 15s team returned to the test arena last month after three years away.
The Kukis were beaten 54-10 by Tonga in a Rugby World Cup 2023 qualifier, and while encouraged by the performance, Wihongi-Willis wants to see the gap closing between themselves and higher-ranked Pacific teams in the years ahead.
She says one of the keys to doing that is changing the emphasis of the Union from participation to high performance.
“I think we owe it to our players and coaching and management to up our game. They put their bodies and their livelihoods on the line to play for us. A lot of them are working three jobs, so it is up to us to give them the support and infrastructure they need as much as we can.
“There isn’t a better way to do that than by moving slowly, as a Union, from one that bases its strategy around participation to one that bases it around high performance.
“Trying to stay competitive is really difficult, so that’s why I would like to build our infrastructure here.
“The longer that we don’t do that, the further behind we get. There’s a big jump in the Pacific between the teams in the top tier and those below, so I really want to close that.
“When we played Tonga, I think they were ranked 15 and we were 53, so rankings-wise there is a massive and widening gap.
“I really wanted to get on the board as President because over time, if work isn’t done, that gap will get even bigger.
“The natural talent is there, we just need to get the infrastructure and our systems and support in place to grow with the talent that we do have.
“I would like to see us at the top of our tier, that would be great. But, also, I am well aware that governance and strategic planning is a huge part of that, and it is something we need to get right.”
Auckland-born Wihongi-Willis moved to the Cook Islands 13 years ago with her husband and the Cook Islands men’s sevens captain, Stephen Willis, and soon immersed herself in rugby matters.
She has managed both the men’s and women’s sevens teams, sat on the board as an advocate of women’s rugby for the last two years and, in June, she took up her present role, in addition to being heavily involved in community rugby.
“I am really thankful that the stakeholders in our Union saw the vision that I had for Cook Islands rugby and decided to vote for myself as a female but also as a non-Cook Islander as President of the board,” she said.
“On the whole, I have been really supported and I think a lot of that comes down to the fact that, over the years, I have done a lot for rugby and it’s getting to the point in the Cook Islands where they want action not just people talking about doing things.”
More action and more fixtures is on Wihongi-Willis’ wish-list.
“I would like to see more tests played by the Cook Islands. We do only tend to play every four years, so to be competitive with a new team and new coaches every four years becomes a bit difficult.
“I want to put in place systems whereby we can not only retain players but also coaches and management. If you get good coaching and management, the world’s your oyster. We just need more game time in between.”
Having former All Black Lima Sopoaga on board as assistant to head coach Nathan Robinson clearly had a positive effect on the team as they only trailed Tonga by four points approaching half-time, before falling away in the second half.
“To be able to know that’s our starting point, and it is only going to get better from here, was really exciting,” Wihongi-Willis said.
“Coming into the changing rooms after the game, whilst we were all disappointed not to have won, everybody was happy with the effort and really excited for the future of 15s in the Cook Islands.”