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Fiji's fearless trailblazers winning hearts and minds

Updated: 2023-03-17 09:15
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Bitila Tawake (L), captain of Fijiana Drua and coach Inoke Male, pose at the launch of the 2023 "Super W" women's rugby season in Sydney, Australia, March 8, 2023. [Photo/Agencies]

SYDNEY — Bitila Tawake was not even playing rugby four years ago but now she is a bona fide star back home as captain of a Fijiana Drua team that is tearing down barriers for women who want to play the Pacific island nation's favorite sport.

Matching the prop's meteoric rise in the game, the Drua won Australia's elite Super W competition at the first time of asking last year and is now preparing to open its title defense against ACT Brumbies on March 25.

Tawake believes the impact of that debut triumph, coming on the back of a bronze medal for the Fijiana Sevens side at the Olympics in 2021, has been transformative for women's rugby in what is still a socially conservative nation.

"People's minds just started changing," the 23-year-old told a small group of reporters at the launch of the Super W season in Sydney last week.

"After last year's win there has been a lot of recognition from men especially, coming up to us to say, 'oh, good game, you guys did really well, better than the men'.

"It's in our culture that women belong in the kitchen, or belong in the house. They're supposed to be wives bearing children. But now it's kind of changed so we can do both. There's more equality and equity now."

Like most Fijians, the sporty Tawake played backyard rugby as a child but the lack of pathways for girls meant she moved onto netball and then played basketball for her country.

"I never really expected to play rugby, but it's been a dream. Everyone in Fiji has rugby in the blood," she added.

"I joined basketball, I guess I wanted more physicality, and then my friend and my cousin convinced me to play rugby."

Tawake's talent meant she quickly rose to Test level, including playing in all three of Fiji's matches at last year's women's World Cup, but it took a while to win over her family.

"I guess my dad wasn't as supportive but now he's a big supporter for women's rugby," she said.

"It took a while for my family to accept that I played rugby. But now they're all big fans. They're my number one fans."

'Kind of crazy'

Tawake's family is not alone and the university student has had to become used to being recognized on the streets back home.

"I just have to hide," she giggled. "At first it was OK, but now it's kind of crazy, because Fiji's pretty small."

That popularity should be evident when the Drua plays its first proper Super W home matches against the Brumbies in Nadi and Melbourne Rebels in Suva after spending all last season on the road because of pandemic travel restrictions.

"We are expecting a huge turnout, especially for the second game when there's a doubleheader with the boys. It's going to be huge, exciting," Tawake added.

Last year's success means the Drua will go into the new season as favorite rather than underdog but Tawake said there would be no compromise on playing with the traditional Fijian mix of power and flair.

"I guess we're just sticking to Fijian rugby because that's who we are. That's what makes our kind of rugby exciting," she said.

"The main aim that we had last year was just not making up the numbers but to win. And that's the same aim we have for this year, not just making up the numbers but to win and make the finals again."

With the help of funding from the Australian government, the rugby pathways that Tawake might have taken as a teenager have now opened up with an explosion in opportunities for girls.

"We have the 10s, sevens, we have 15s and there's a lot of high-school rugby coming up for women and girls," she said.

"It's been huge, it's been a huge push."

Fiji, ranked 17th in the world, bowed out at the pool stage of its first World Cup last year after heavy losses to fully professional women's rugby superpowers England and France.

The ambitious Tawake is hoping the increased pathways and more regular Tests outside the Pacific region will help turn Fiji into a serious contender by the time she comes to the close of her career at the 2029 tournament in Australia.

"The plan is to finish my degree, get married, have children and probably make the next two World Cups," she said.


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