To the casual observer, rugby union is the universal obsession in the Pacific island nation of Fiji.

June 27, 2018

Ba is the home of Fijian soccer, the very heart of rugby’s traditional no-go zone. Indian Fijian schools don't 'do' rugby and it is certainly not a game for girls. That is how it has always been.

And yet, just a short walk from the giant soccer ball that sits proudly in the heart of Ba town, Indian Fijian girls are flying down the wing in a school rugby match.

Tihrani Uluinakauvadra is responsible for the stunning scene.

"We may say it is the religion in Fiji but the truth about the races is still there, where the Indo-Fijian friends will always just cheer from their bedrooms and for them to actually run with the rugby ball and play the game of rugby is something that is not there," the Get Into Rugby Co-ordinator says.

"With the introduction of 'Get Into Rugby' where it is safe and fun, it opens up these opportunities and it is just amazing to see how it has lifted the morale of the people involved. With this change, we can now say; 'Yes, rugby is the religion in Fiji'."

Rugby's motivation is obvious. World Rugby's Australian aid-supported initiative Get Into Rugby is taking the game and its values to the grassroots, breeding future players and fans.

But tackling taboos has required local vision and courage from Indo-Fijian schools and parents.

The Olympic gold medal-winning success of the Fijian men's Sevens team has paved the way and rugby is an addition to round-ball football, not a replacement.

"Indians are mostly involved with football but Fiji Sevens has taken the heart of Fiji," says Arya Kanya Pathshala school teacher, Rugby Co-ordinator and respected football coach Shalen Lal.

"The children in Indian schools, they have put their focus on rugby as well, to just check where they fit right. Basically, they want to burn out their energy and enjoy both."

Some rural areas, though, have been more reluctant, especially when it comes to girls getting into rugby.

"It's difficult," admits Rugby Development Officer Joeli Tubu, who has created a primary school rugby festival for 300 boys and 200 girls.

"Some villages in my region won't allow me there. They don't want the girls to play rugby. It's still a battle."

But just as the men's Sevens success softened attitudes, so too will women's rugby success, according to Tihrani.

"If we keep focussing on this, we will also have the women to win gold medals in the Olympics," he says.

"That is my vision. It's more than rugby. It makes people become a stronger person."

"Not only physically but spiritually and mentally and it is also creating pathways not only for players, but teachers. It is about creating opportunities for everybody."

Mr Lal concurs.

"Since the girls are coming, they are building up to get respect from the boys because they are able to play as well as the boys," he says.

"We have started with the men's quite a number of years ago and that's why we are getting the results now.

"We've just started with the women's and very soon, we will be getting the results.

"In years to come, Fiji women will be doing wonders in rugby also."

Perhaps that gold medal team of the future will feature a flying Indo-Fijian winger from the town of Ba.

Maybe, they'll need to find room for a big rugby ball in the centre of town as well.

Anything now seems possible.





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