Vela Naucukidi has been on a long and winding journey with women’s rugby in Fiji, but it is one she hopes can lead to an Olympic medal in Tokyo.
Naucukidi has worked in rugby for more than 20 years, starting as a reporter at Teivovo Magazine before serving as president of the Fiji Women’s Rugby Union and team manager of both the Fijiana sevens and 15s sides.
She joined the Fiji Rugby Union as Women’s Development Manager in November, 2014, and having reprised her role as Fijiana sevens team manager on the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series 2020, will travel with the team to Tokyo 2020 in the same capacity.
“Our plan is to reach the podium and we are serious about this journey to the Olympics,” Naucukidi told World Rugby.
“It’s been too long walking through the desert and through the jungle… [But] at one time, we finished fourth in the HSBC Series and I know that we can reach that stage again, and even better that result.”
Naucukidi pauses briefly, choked up with emotion, as she reflects on her two decades in rugby and what it means to her to be asked to oversee the Fijiana at an Olympic Games.
“To be named as the manager for the Olympics, it’s a pinnacle for any athlete and for any administrator to be part of the Olympics. So, it’s big for me.
“I think it’s the reward for all those sacrifices and all the commitment throughout the years,” she said.
“For me personally, that’s huge because… it’s the pinnacle of your career for any athlete, and to be part of that is, for me, a milestone. It’s history.
“And, it’s huge for my career in the sense that you will be part of something big not only for yourself, [but] for the sport and for the athletes that you are grooming and assisting to reach where they want to be.
“Also, I believe that for me, [in] my role as a Women’s Development Manager, I’d be able to help other women and inspire other women that want to join the sport.
“I know it took me a long time. It’s a long journey, but now there’s a lot of changes, behaviour changes within the union and within Fiji.
“There’ll be a lot of women coming in and it’ll be faster to come through the ladders and pathways, not only for the players, [but] for coaches, for administrators, and I’ll be able to mentor some of the managers coming through.
“It’s a challenge not only to manage women, but I believe in the very near future women will be managing men’s teams and it’ll be amazing to see that happen.”
HERE TO STAY
In her development role at Fiji Rugby, Naucukidi recently helped set up a national women’s 15s competition to help clubs prepare for the provincial championship, which begins in April.
Twenty-four teams will take part in that championship, and Naucukidi believes the size of the competition sends “the message that women are here to stay”.
“There’s a tremendous increase in the number of girls coming through and the coaches that we’re trying to accredit, going through from level one to level two, level three,” she said.
“We have more female educators coming through and the mindset within FRU and also from the villages [is changing].
“You know, tradition and culture is strong here, and our beliefs, and there were times when you had those attitudes where rugby’s just a men’s game.
“But, now you see when the girls run onto the field and the men are actually cheering for them and supporting them. For me, it’s huge in the sense [that] when you travel through the 20 years, and you see the changes.
“At first, when you ran onto the field you got all those comments, but now you see the change. It’s satisfying, [and] brings a lot of satisfaction to see the wonderful things being done. And, I’m grateful to World Rugby for the funding assistance and also to Fiji Rugby for aligning ourselves to World Rugby.”
Naucukidi’s journey was accelerated in 2019, when she was awarded a World Rugby Women’s Executive Leadership Scholarship.
As part of the programme, she studied for an eCornell women’s leadership course and visited Scotland on a best practice tour. Naucukidi was also able to meet and share ideas with several of the other recipients at the inaugural Oceania Women’s Rugby Leadership Workshop in Nadi.
“The scholarship really helped me, especially the leadership course that I did with Cornell Uni, I still apply those [lessons] with the Olympic team,” she explained.
“Especially the self-awareness part. I really need to understand myself to be able to work with this bunch of girls, because they come from different families.
“And, for an introvert like me, it’s not easy to actually come out and socialise. It took me [time] after that course to slowly adjust myself, the way I do things and the way I think, to accept other people, to be able to know that there are other ways of doing things.
“One strong thing that I learnt from this is the emotional intelligence part. You can have all the knowledge and the wisdom and everything, but it’s the emotion, how you manage your emotions when you’re dealing with decision-making.”
Naucukidi added: “Going to Scotland was an eye-opener. I was on attachment with the Scotland women’s team, the High Performance [Unit], the HPU, the under-18s and also the development work.
“I went to the rural area and some of the things that they face, it’s the same as us. The geographical location, it’s all over the place.
“Some of the ideas that I learnt from there was, for example, those up in the rural area, how they work with the stakeholders within the area to get the support and how… rugby can change lives.”