Vela Naucukidi is by her own admission a “rugby fanatic”. Her love affair with the sport began when she was young and the Fijian considers herself to be a student of the game.
However, bar pick-up games with her brothers and cousins it was not until adulthood, after she had started working, that an opportunity to play for a team materialised.
By then Naucukidi, Fiji team manager for the opening round of HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series 2020 in Glendale this weekend, had joined a rugby magazine in order to get “close to the rugby family”.
Living out her dreams on the pitch in Fiji – when her commitments as a rugby reporter allowed – came with its own challenges, though.
“When playing you get swarmed. When you’re running to the field you’re called names,” Naucukidi (pictured, centre) said.
Traditionally, opportunities for Fijian women in rugby were scarce but thanks to the work of people like Naucukidi that is beginning to change.
Having stopped playing to concentrate on administration, Naucukidi became an influential figure in women’s rugby and in 2015 was appointed Women’s Development Manager at the Fiji Rugby Union.
Negative attitudes persisted, she admits: “Even when you are managing the national team, you are told ‘Ah, your team is just wasting money’.”
Empowering women through rugby
Naucukidi is committed to changing those perceptions in Fiji. Earlier this year, she was awarded a World Rugby Women’s Executive Leadership Scholarship and she intends to use it to empower women by increasing female participation in the sport.
“In a traditional set-up we are not allowed to speak, only when we are asked to speak then we can speak,” Naucukidi explained.
“We look down on ourselves [and think] we can’t do the hard job, we can only wash the dishes and things like that, clean the house.
“But with the women’s rugby programme they have come to realise what they can offer and they’ve been empowered through the programme.”
Naucukidi highlights two members of the under-18 women’s programme, one of whom has recently qualified to work for the fire department and another who has become an officer in the army, as proof that things are improving.
“It’s through rugby that they’ve been empowered so they can step into the men’s job and know from within that they can actually achieve,” she added.
“So there’s a lot of things happening, it’s just amazing. It’s slow but we just need more positive stories, more visibility!”
Comparing notes in Nadi
Good news stories have not been in short supply in the past 12 months. Fiji will play host to the Oceania qualifier for Rugby World Cup 2021 at the end of the year, while in November the Oceania Rugby Women’s Sevens Championship will take place in Suva for the third successive year.
In August, meanwhile, Rugby Australia CEO Raelene Castle and New Zealand Rugby’s Chief Operating Officer Nicki Nicol – who is Naucukidi’s scholarship mentor – were among the speakers at the inaugural Oceania Women’s Rugby Leadership Workshop in Nadi.
The workshop gave Naucukidi, who is enrolled on a women’s leadership course at Cornell University and is due to travel to Scotland on a best practice tour in November, the chance to meet some of her fellow scholarship recipients.
“We were given time to share with all the participants, with those that were attending the workshop, on what we are doing, what we are trying to achieve, our objectives,” she said.
Was fortunate to be given the opportunity this morning to meet some pretty amazing young girls participating in the @oceaniarugby GIR plus program. Combining coaching and life skills to develop future Rugby players and leaders 🏉⭐️⭐️⭐️#tryandstopus #womeninrugby pic.twitter.com/pdwn8EIOsG— katie sadleir (@KSadleir) August 14, 2019
“Some have finished with their scholarship and some have just started so there was a lot of comparing notes.”
What her experience in Nadi and on the distant learning course at Cornell University has taught Naucukidi is that she is on the right path.
Having witnessed a presentation on Scottish Rugby’s approach to the women’s game at the World Rugby women’s leadership forum in Belfast during Rugby World Cup 2017, she is hopeful her trip to Europe will be a fruitful one too.
“I opted to go to Scotland to see how they are doing with that programme because I believe that most of the things that they are actually doing will work well with us in the rural setting, and some of the policies that they have,” Naucukidi said.
“I think they have the best policies, especially when dealing with gender and child protection.”
Here to stay
Moving forward, Naucukidi would like to see annual test matches for Fiji against their Pacific neighbours at both senior and age-grade level and is hopeful that her dream will come to fruition.
“To play the Cook Islands, Samoa and Tonga regularly every year,” she said of her long-term goal.
“Hopefully in the next five, 10 years we have regular competition for the 15s in the Oceania region and include Australia and New Zealand because that will help our smaller nations.
“I’m so grateful to Oceania Rugby, they’re pushing for it.
“We are hosting the World Cup qualifier at the end of this year, and Australia, New Zealand I think their development teams will be coming as well so that’s good for us marketing wise.
“Because we hardly get women’s rugby on TV so this will show to our locals that women’s rugby is here to stay.”