Rugby World finds out what the state of play is with women’s rugby in the Oceania region
Women’s rugby growing fast in Oceania
“People ask me, ‘Why do women want to play rugby?’ I say, ‘Why do men want to swim?’”
Those are the words of Cathy Wong, the Oceania Rugby Women’s Director who was also appointed to the World Rugby Council recently. Her role is to oversee the development of women’s rugby in the region, at junior and senior level, in sevens, tens and 15s.
It’s a big brief and there are challenges. Wong worked behind the scenes earlier this year to enact a turnaround in Tongan policy after the education ministry banned girls from playing rugby in schools.
Related: Tonga ban girls from playing rugby
Wong says understanding the local culture is key. “In the Pacific we have a matriarchal society and when it comes to sport things can be very traditional,” she says. “Respecting and working within the boundaries of those cultures is very important, as is not thinking of culture as a barrier.
“As a Pacific Islander I’m accepted when I go into those situations and have that understanding of the culture, so that’s a benefit when working at a governance level and mediating.”
Another challenge is numbers. Women’s rugby may be growing in Oceania but a country like Niue could not support a 15-a-side rugby so there is more of a focus on sevens. It’s also about creating inter-island competitions so players get to test themselves.
“In Oceania, the biggest growth has been in women’s rugby with a 48% pick-up in women’s participation,” explains Wong, who points to the 2016 Olympics as a key factor. “Fiji’s win in Rio really opened things up, with people thinking if boys can do it so can girls.”
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World Rugby’s Get Into Rugby programme is introducing more children to the sport and there is now a 15-a-side women’s league in Fiji. Wong’s next goals include creating similar leagues in Samoa and potentially Papua New Guinea, where they have the numbers to do so, as well as week-long sevens and tens tournaments between smaller islands so they get more exposure to competitive fixtures.
As participation levels increase, taking part in the Women’s World Cup becomes a possibility. Fiji and Papua New Guinea competed in the recent Sevens World Cup, but further progress is needed in the longer format.
“My role is making sure unions at Tier Two and Tier Three level can move up to the next level and be competitive,” says Wong. “Right now, in bigger nations we’re seeing women’s players being contracted at sevens and 15s. That’s a big ask, but if I can get the women the same player welfare support system as the men, then I’ve done my job.”
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