During Oceania Rugby and Rugby Australia’s Women in Rugby Month, Rugby Victoria will be featuring the stories of the Women who make up our great game. Women in rugby… respect!
Sharlene Fagalilo’s journey on the international sporting stage look destined to be exclusively on the hockey field.
The prodigious talent picked up the stick at just 11 years of age. She would go on to represent the Samoan Women’s National Team, starring at the elite level in International Oceania Tournaments throughout her twenties.
Growing up in Wellington, New Zealand, the Fagalilo’s lived and breathed sport.
But for Sharlene, rugby was always her true love.
“I played hockey because mum wouldn’t let me play rugby,” she said.
“Growing up back home was pretty cool. Back then we were able to run amok on the streets and play rugby on the road and in the backyard. My brothers and cousins are the reason why I played rugby. I was the only girl out of all the boys; I would jump in with no fear!”
“As I grew older, I started loving rugby.”
Finally given the green light to play rugby at 16 years of age, Sharlene excelled from the get-go.
“I fell in love with the sport,” she said.
In only her first year of swapping the hockey stick for the rugby ball, Fagalilo impressed to make the Wellington U18 Girls Team squad – playing in the following year’s tournament. Her flourishing sporting prowess saw her feature in the Wellington Pride senior side at just 19 years of age in the New Zealand Mitre 10 Cup.
It was only by luck, after her teammates put her name forward and convinced her to trial, that her international journey on the rugby pitch followed.
At just 21 years of age, Fagalilo was selected for Samoa in the 2006 Rugby World Cup in Canada - representing her parent’s country of origin.
She was about to live out her backyard dream.
“I had just turned 21 and got the incredible news that I had made the World Cup Team, and I was going to travel to Canada a couple of months later,” she said.
“It was the most surreal experience of my life.”
“I never thought my country had a team when I was younger. I always thought, being born in NZ, it was just the Black Ferns.”
In only her first international match for Samoa, Fagalilo found herself positioned in the loose forwards in front of a packed World Cup stadium in Edmonton.
“The whole experience of playing for your country in a World Cup was overwhelming,” she said.
“I’ve never had that experience before of playing for my country overseas.”
“We were just one big family; we were training for so long beforehand.”
Eight years later, her international career would come calling once again.
After plying her trade in the Wellington Pride Rugby Union Team, she returned to the world stage as a Hooker in Samoa’s 2014 Rugby World Cup campaign in France.
This time around, the achievement was for her family.
“Playing for Samoa was for my mum and dad,” she said.
“I was so proud to represent them and their home country. I never would have thought that I’d ever wear that blue jersey, but I made sure I played the very best I could for mum and dad.”
“My brothers were very proud of me as well. Coming from playing in the backyard as the only girl amongst the boys, being a bit of a tom-boy when I was younger, they were pretty happy for me.”
“Putting on that jersey was for my family.”
Throughout her mid-twenties, Fagalilo turned her sporting attention to hockey.
She went on to star for the Samoan International Women’s Hockey Team from 2013-2017, playing in Oceania Tournaments in New Zealand, Fiji and an international five-a-side tournament in Sydney.
But after “wanting to try something different” from playing hockey for most of her life, Fagalilo moved to Australia in 2016. She admits she “found out pretty early that rugby is not as big as it is back home in New Zealand,” but felt right at home at her new club, Western Districts.
The international campaigner stamped her authority from the outset, winning the 2017 Lindroth Cup player of the Year award and becoming an inaugural Melbourne Rebels Super W player.
As an experienced voice with an unrivalled passion and knowledge for the game, Fagalilo was a crucial part of the leadership group at the Rebels, eventually becoming Co-Captain in 2019, where she proved to be an invaluable sounding board for her younger teammates.
According to the dynamic hooker, she thrived in passing on her wealth of knowledge and leading the Rebels player support network alongside fellow skipper and fullback Meretiana Robinson.
“I’ve loved playing at a different level,” she said.
“I’ve always wanted to dip in and help where I can. I’m always happy to share the experience and techniques I’ve learnt and pass it onto the younger girls coming through.”
“I just want to help them achieve their goals and help them reach the highest level of where they want to play.”
Women in all aspects of rugby union will be celebrated this September during Oceania Rugby and Rugby Australia’s Women in Rugby Month.
With a 200% global increase of registered female rugby players over the last six years, there has been an exponential growth of the sport among girls and women. Scintillating rugby in the Women’s Sevens at the Tokyo Olympics and Super W in 2021 has added to the admiration and interest in the game.
According to Fagalilo, providing the exposure and platform for female rugby stars around the country is helping to inspire the next generation to reach the elite level.
“The game has been given more exposure in the public space,” she said.
“The young girls can see their heroes live on tv and at stadiums in action.”
“For women’s and youth girls’ rugby coming through, they want to see their heroes. They want to play with and against them. It gives them the inspiration and motivation to believe that they can do it too.”
“We’ve seen all the younger ones setting goals now and wanting to achieve their dreams of trying to get to the stage of being a professional athlete.”
Themed Women in Rugby…Respect, this month will showcase, celebrate, and acknowledge girls and women across the game, who deserve respect for their courage and contributions to rugby. Respect for girls and women in all aspects of sport is vital to increasing engagement, changing attitudes, accelerating development, and making the game safe and accessible to all females.
At 36 years old, Fagalilo is aware of the responsibility she has as an ‘old hand’ and feels proud to be a leader of the movement of developing women’s rugby.
“It’s slow, but it’s getting better,” Fagalilo said,
“There is a lot of young girls wanting to play rugby through school, and I’d love to see more promotion and pathway in our schools – especially from our elite players.”
“This month is about respecting that women can do anything.”
“There’s people who say women and girls can’t play rugby. But we are able and willing to do anything that males can do.”
“It’s also about respecting each other, as a lot of the girls are still learning the game. I respect women putting up their hand and giving the game of rugby a go.”
After taking the 2021 season off, Fagalilo will be back better than ever to play for Western Districts and hopefully the Melbourne Rebels next season in the scrum.
She will be intending to run out onto the field once again alongside her housemate and Western Districts and Melbourne Rebel teammate Alice Tonumaivao. The two have become close friends after first playing together in the 2017 Brisbane Global Rugby Tens tournament.
Most of all, Fagalilo will be living by her family’s values and hoping to inspire the next generation to pick up a rugby ball and enjoy everything that the game has to offer.
“Back home, it’s all about playing for family and the love of the game.”
“That’s how I’ve been brought up through all my sports. It’s been the support from my family and good friends to push me to get where I am. That’s what I’ve tried to bring with me to Australia and Western Districts.”
“Western Districts Rugby Club goes back to that one word: family. If someone needs a hand, everyone jumps on board and helps out.”
“We fully support each other no matter our backgrounds, cultures and religions.”
To find out more about Women in Rugby Month visit: Oceania Rugby dedicates September to: Women In Rugby…Respect! | Latest Rugby News | Oceania Rugby