The rise of Fijiana
Speaking ahead of their Rugby World Cup debut against England on Saturday, Fijiana captain Sereima Leweniqila said that her team “had nothing to lose.”
She could have easily added, “and everything to gain”; however, in just getting to a Rugby World Cup for the first time, Fijiana have already gained a lot, and in a short space of time.
Remember this is a team that went 10 years without playing, between its second test in 2006 to its third in 2016. Even in their own country, women’s rugby, at best, was not seen as a priority, and at worst, something not to be encouraged. Opportunities to play at any level were scarce.
But a mind shift around gender equality, supported by a number of initiatives from the Fiji Rugby Union, Oceania Rugby and World Rugby and the work of tireless administrators such as World Rugby Women’s Executive Leadership Scholarship recipient Vela Naucukidi, have helped to change outdated perceptions and more girls and women are playing the sport than ever before.
A successful national team is also a big driver for participation and, in Fijiana, those back on the islands now have role models to aspire to. Likewise, rugby as a whole couldn’t wish for better ambassadors than Fijiana, their popularity making them everyone’s favourite second team at Rugby World Cup 2021.
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In the six years since their reintroduction, Fijiana have leapt up the rankings and are now on the verge of breaking into the world’s top 20 for the first time. Do well in New Zealand and that will certainly be the case.
You do wonder how much further down the line they’d have been if they’d not effectively lost two years’ worth of development as a team due to COVID-19. After qualifying for Rugby World Cup via the Oceania Rugby Women’s Championship at the end of November 2019, for example, Fiji did not play again until May 2022.
In the meantime, though, the Fiji women’s sevens team continued to cause a stir by winning the bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics.
And then, on the eve of Fijiana’s return to the test arena, their development team, the Fijiana Drua, won the prestigious Super W competition in Australia at the first attempt.
The Fijiana Drua took the elite women’s competition by storm, finishing an unbeaten campaign with a 32-26 win over four-time holders, the Waratahs, in the final.
That moment and all the other milestones on their remarkable journey to Rugby World Cup 2021 have been captured on film through a brilliant behind-the-scenes documentary, ‘Let’s Play’.
In episode 1, ‘The rise of Fijiana. How a country that shunned women’s rugby went on to conquer Super W and Oceania’, viewers get to see what it took for them to go from complete obscurity to being the team on everyone's lips.
The next episode picks up this most remarkable of stories by taking you through the team’s rigorous Rugby World Cup 2021 preparations and the pain that the players went through pounding the historic sand dunes in Sigatoka.
In the third and final episode, viewers are transported to Suva, the capital of Fiji, where Fijiana play their last game before departing for New Zealand – a 24-7 defeat to Canada.
While on paper that result looks nothing special, to only lose by 17 points to a team ranked 18 places higher puts into perspective how far they have come. And the bad news for their rivals around the world is that they are not done yet.
“This journey is like our culture, we believe that nothing is impossible so, yeah, we are ready to get out there," said Leweniqila.