In Fair Game, the new podcast series from Bird of Paradise, RNZ and Pacific Media Network, James Nokise, John Daniell and Talei Anderson look at the factors holding back Pacific rugby from reaching its potential.
It’s 2006. I'm at school and there’s a call for students to come along to a rugby session. A few of my friends are heading down and I have some extra time after class, so out of curiosity, I decide to tag along. I went to a girls' school but I don’t recall there ever being a shortage of players.
A lot of them came from rugby-mad Pasifika homes and it wasn’t unusual for some to have had family members play internationally. I held no particular interest in playing myself but got roped into joining this one practice session.
I soon realised I wasn’t made for this type of thing when I got asked to hold a tackle bag for two minutes. Two minutes.
It only took that long for me to decide I wouldn’t be attending another training session.
Physically and mentally, I wasn't up to it and it scared the shit out of me. The thought of having to run up against some of the toughest women I’ve ever seen has never been a calling I’ve wanted to answer, but I was drawn to the sport in other ways.
Watching from the stands I would be in awe of these incredible women who were literally putting their bodies in harm’s way to fulfil their passion.
I soon went from supporting the sport, to writing about it, and a career began. While the matches were always filled with feats of athleticism, exciting moments of sporting drama and often close and contentious calls, I soon realised that playing the game was the easy part.
Getting there was the real challenge.
I remember the day I told my dad I wanted to study journalism once I left high-school – he wasn’t exactly thrilled about my aspirations. I think he was just worried about my prospects. Looking back, I can understand why.
There wasn’t a whole lot of representation of women in sports reporting circles. I gave it a shot anyway and landed a couple of short-term reporting jobs before eventually working at a local sports organisation. It was here where I started to understand what people meant by “the old boys club.”
In all honesty, it doesn’t even come close to what our women in the Pacific have had to endure, but I could empathise and share a glimpse of their frustration when it came to being a voice at the table. Even when I started working as a full-time sports journalist, rugby related matters would often fall to male counterparts.
When I worked at RNZ Pacific, it didn’t take me long to read between the lines of some of the interactions with comms personnel.
The scripted responses were entertaining, and I found beauty in the long pauses, deep breaths and robotic tones in their voices. You could almost see them eye rolling through the phone or speaking through gritted teeth as they attempted to avoid biting the hand that fed them the publicity they needed.
I got it though. It wasn’t about what they did or said, it was also about how those things could be interpreted.
I have to admit, when I was approached to be part of Fair Game: Pacific Rugby Against the World, I was hesitant at first. Was this going to help or hurt those fronting the game?
I wanted to share the passion, commitment and celebrate the success of women’s rugby in the Pacific but I knew we needed to shine a light on their struggles, the constant battle for a level playing field and the all too often revealing but “off-the-record” conversations.
To be frank, I wasn’t expecting to get anything new or different from what I’ve heard before, but in this series, in these interviews, people open up.
Fehoko Tuivai is the Vice Chair of Tonga Women’s Rugby. She's responsible for the women’s game in Tonga and has been involved since the first team was established in 2006 – the same year I had my short high-school stint.
She says one of the challenges has been that men control everything surrounding the game. She's had to “fight with them” to ensure that female players had a voice too.
Former Manusina international, Muliagatele Niuafolau Alaisalatemaota Bakulich-Leavasa, who has forged the path for young women in the game, talks to us about the sacrifices she had to make to play for her home country, which meant repeating a year of school and putting family plans on hold.
Two pioneers of women’s rugby in Samoa, Dawn Rasmussen and Susan Faogali, take us back to the first official women’s game there - which might surprise some people - and they argue: should there be a balance between on-shore and off-shore players when representing your heritage?
We also hear from Vela Naucukidi, Women's Development Officer for Fiji Rugby Union, who reflects on the success of the Fijiana and the moment she realised they had the support of the whole country.
While there is potential for things to sound bleak, the reality is things are moving at different paces in different places but they are moving.
You only have to look back a few months ago to the Women’s Rugby World Cup to see what can happen when people get behind women’s sport. Development teams from Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, the Cook Islands and Papua New Guinea took part in the programme beforehand.
That wouldn’t have happened 10 years ago. Some of the Pacific nations are also looking to secure funding so more opportunities are provided for women, on and off the field.
What I really want is for Fair Game to show the real-life implications of what it takes for women in the Pacific to play the game they love. There is passion and pride but there is also a price paid for them to wear their nation’s jersey. I hope people see how women have given so much just to be able to participate in the game of rugby and yet have, up until now, got so little back.
From that early, and fleeting training experience of my own, to cheering on my mates from the side-lines, to the interviews with women who have paved the way for the next generation, it has dawned on me that rugby is so much more than 80 minutes of physical confrontation on the field.
It’s about being given a fair chance, an opportunity to showcase talent, to represent families and culture. It’s a place where friendships are made and connections are forged for a lifetime. It’s about camaraderie and community. It’s about coming together to play a game we all love.
I understand the women’s game is still largely amateur, but whether it’s playing for your country or for your school team, shouldn’t rugby be a fair game for everyone?
Available from February 9th on Apple podcasts, iHeart, Spotify, PMN and at RNZ.co.nz.
Fair Game: Pacific Rugby Against the World is made with the support of New Zealand on Air.
Written and produced by James Nokise, Talei Anderson and John Daniell for Bird of Paradise Productions, Radio New Zealand and Pacific Media Network
Language programme director - Matt Tufuga
Executive producers for RNZ - Justin Gregory, Katy Gosset and Tim Watkin
Sound engineers - Rangi Powick, Alex Harmer and Jeremy Ansell for RNZ, Harrison Edwards at PMN
Music and sound design - Anonymouz (Faiumu Matthew Salapu)
Visuals: Manatoa Productions, Anonymouz and Krista Barnaby (RNZ)
Additional reporting by Lice Movono
Additional sound recorded by Rudy Bartley at WT Media in Samoa
Special thanks to Don Mann, Lui Vilisoni, Lagipoiva Cherelle Jackson, Jodhi Hoani, Josie Campbell,
Elijah Fa’afiu and Inangaro Vakaafi
RNZ Commissioning - Jodhi Hoani, Tim Burnell
RNZ Acting Head of Content - Veronica Schmidt
RNZ Interim Chief Content Officer - Megan Whelan