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Samoa's shifting sands reveal rugby renaissance

A woman holding a rugby ball is tackled by two women on either side of her. Four other players are in the background.
Women's rugby is undergoing a revival in Samoa.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

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Women's rugby in Samoa has been in decline. But the drive of rugby-loving women, a devoted development team and a shift in cultural attitudes have combined to give the game new drive and hope.

Samoa loves rugby union.

The young man selling sarongs from a rickety card table in the centre of Apia proudly wears the national jersey, as do several shoppers.

In the villages, families huddle around TV screens to watch the Sevens World Series and taxi drivers proudly point out the homes of famous players.

But as they drive past Marist Brothers Primary School Mulivai, they barely notice what might be the nation's most devoted rugby players.

A woman with bare feet stands with a rugby ball under her arm and looks up at the camera.
Aspiring player and new mother Pogia Ese Tuni.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

Many of the 25 women running around in the blazing sun and searing humidity have travelled more than one-and-a-half hours from the far side of the island for this chance to play.

Among them is Pogia. At 24, and just five months after having a baby, she is here in cut-off jeans and bare feet, showcasing her considerable talent to the rugby union hierarchy.

"Sometimes people look down on the women," she says.

"I don't know why because all the girls want to play."

Everyone freely admits that women's rugby was far healthier here a decade ago. No regular, serious competition exists and strong relationships within the education system have faded. But gatherings like this, backed by Australian Aid, are part of a renaissance. Schools are once again being engaged, festivals are being staged and a new push into rural and remote areas is underway.

On a grassy field, a man grabs another man facing him by the shoulders. Seven other people look on.
Samoa Rugby Development Officer Shalom Senara (second from left) leads a defensive skill drill.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

"I want as many girls as possible shown the pathway to a career," says Samoan Rugby Development officer Shalom Senara.

"I'm really proud of these girls. It's not that easy. One, for the parents to let them come here and two, for the girls to get here."

Logistical and financial barriers plague the development of the game, but cultural hurdles have proven the toughest to tackle. The emergence of women's sevens at the Olympics, however, is being credited with a softening of traditional parental resistance to their girls playing rugby.

"Whatever your parent says, that's what you do," explains Samoa Women's Development officer Avi'i Fa'alupega.

"Some of the parents, they now understand.

"Earn the trust of your parents and the parents will allow you to do sports."

A woman sits on a concrete floor in front of a brick wall painted blue and white.
Samoan International Tafale Roma Malesi.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

Tafale Roma Malesi has managed to play her entire life, including playing halfback for the Samoan national team.

"Samoan parents are strict, especially to the ladies," she says.

"Because rugby is in the Olympics, that really helped. I think they understand now."

Out on the field, boggy from a week of heavy rain, the humidity is stifling. Shalom is playing referee and is contriving a thrilling finish to the match with some deliberately dubious decisions. The two teams take turns roaring in protest and then laughter.

Girls as young as ten are playing tag rugby with internationals, creating a strange mix of mentoring and manic competitiveness. Tag rugby is being increasingly offered in communities when full-contact sports are frowned upon for women.

A woman stands in front of a wall looking off-camera. Her right hand rests on a metal grate covering a window.
Samoa's Women's Rugby Development officer Avi'i Fa'alupega.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

As she surveys her Samoan sisters in action, Avi'i finds the magnitude of her task both daunting and inspiring.

"They want more. They want a competition.

"We can see the potential and we can see they really love it.

"The highest standard they can get to is the Olympics.

"These girls deserve a chance to go there and if we don't start now, we won't see it."

This group of women and girls, with their cut-off jeans and big dreams, may still be invisible to some in Samoa, but for others, they are a vision of what could be a thrilling new era for rugby and some of its greatest devotees.

A woman runs across a grassy field holding a rugby ball as another woman tries to tackle from behind. Two other players look on.
The Olympics has inspired a shift in cultural attitudes to women playing rugby in Samoa.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

This story was produced by ABC International Development as part of the Pacific Sports Partnerships funded by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

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