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Cook Islands focused on solutions

Thu, 14/10/2021, 3:12 am
Oceania Rugby
by Oceania Rugby
Cook Islands Quick Rip activities during September 2021
Cook Islands Quick Rip activities during September 2021

There's an old saying that you either have to be part of the solution or you’re going to be part of the problem.

It's a mantra Ashleigh Wihongi-Willis has followed her whole life and is now bringing to her role as only the second female president of the Cook Islands Rugby Union.

"Going on the board wasn't something I had anticipated, but I'm one that believes if you're called enough to a cause to make a change, you need to step up wherever you can," she said.

"I'm not someone who can stand back and comment without putting a plan into action to improve things."

One look at Ashleigh's rugby CV is proof of that.

She has managed the Cook Islands' national men's 7s and 15s teams, served as assistant treasurer and women's development manager on the board and is now four months into her presidency of the national union.

Ashleigh believes having a woman in charge is a win-win, benefitting men's rugby and lifting the women's game at the same time.

"There are some challenges and a few culture shifts with having a female president, but it's been really positive," she said.

"I think in terms of rugby in general, females do have a different perspective on how things are.

"Our nature is a lot more collaborative in our approach to leadership, which I think only makes a more holistic and well-rounded union.

"And, just as importantly for women's rugby, if we don’t have a seat at the table we can’t develop.

"No-one knows the situation in women's rugby better than women and the unique situation we face here and elsewhere to be able to play and create pathways.

"It's exciting. I'm excited for changes to be made."

The challenges of running rugby union in the Cook Islands are many and varied

At the elite level, there's the logistical juggling act of keeping players from three different locations – Cook Islands, Australia and New Zealand – informed, engaged and energised.

Then there's the depopulation of the islands themselves, particularly during Covid, which can gut player numbers.

It's a constant fight but one Ashleigh feels they’re winning, particularly at a junior level.

The Quick Rip program has introduced thousands of boys and girls to the sport, increasing participation numbers and spreading important messages on food, nutrition and living an active lifestyle.

Rugby skills are learned through a series of drills and a six-week Quick Rip – or tag rugby – competition featuring local schools.

It's hoped interest at junior level is parlayed into the senior ranks.

"We've got the talent and we've got the interest and internally and externally we are exposed to some of the best rugby development systems in the world," Ashleigh said.

"We go into schools with our rugby development officers and align rugby skills alongside our healthy living program.

"We give kids a good foundation for a healthy and active lifestyle and teach the fundamentals of nutrition and food."

Then there's the challenge of maintaining – and, in some cases, reviving – senior club rugby for women.

Ashleigh said: "The women's game in still in its infancy at a club level but since the 2020 Cook Island Games we've seen a massive increase in numbers.

"We have worked really hard to create opportunities and pathways and I'm excited to see how we've grown in the last 12 months.

"I've been here 13 years and saw change was needed at club level. We needed to ignite passion and that's happening."

Now, having helped build or restore the foundations, Ashleigh wants others to follow.

"I'm all about empowering other women to get involved. There is so much more potential for growth," she declared.

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