Fijian teenager Sainimere Vateitei made history at the Sol2023 Pacific Games Rugby League 9s event as a member of the first cohort of Pacific women to referee at an international rugby league tournament.
The 19-year-old, who completed her final school exams in Fiji before travelling to Honiara, took charge of the Tonga v Solomon Islands women’s pool match, and officiated as a touch judge and sideline referee in numerous other clashes across the three-day tournament.
She was joined by Cook Islands-based Patricia Taea, who represented her country as a rugby league 9s player at the Samoa 2019 Pacific Games, winning bronze, before shifting her focus to refereeing. New Zealand-born Rochelle Tamarua, an experienced NRLW referee who also officiated at Sol2023, has Cook Islands heritage as well.
Vateitei, who began officiating at schools competitions in Fiji, has developed her refereeing skills through attending training workshops run by the Australian Government-supported NRL in Fiji program and the Australian Defence Force.
“I was so amazed to be selected for this tournament,” she told the Pacific Games News Service. But my Dad said to me, ‘it’s because of your hard work, and hard work pays off’.
“I’m really happy to be here getting to know the other referees, especially those from Australia. I’ve learnt a lot from them about good communication during and after the game. As part of the refereeing team, I’ve learnt that even if we’re not out there on the field it’s our job to help the other referees and give them a heads up about things.”
Vateitei admitted that her debut match was tough, as she had to sin bin a Tonga player for persistently leading with the elbow, but that the experience has been a huge boost for her officiating career.
“I feel awesome to have got this opportunity. I’m just trying to encourage other female referees back at home in Fiji. We need more female referees, as it will help gender equality.
“I just hope that we will inspire other Pacific women to take up refereeing. Even though it’s a male-dominated sport, we women should lay down our fear and just go for it.”
Rugby league 9s technical delegate Jeremy Edwards said: “The Pacific Games provides a perfect platform for our match officials from across the Pacific to gain experience at an international tournament, working alongside match officials from Australia and New Zealand.
“This is an historic moment for rugby league with the introduction of more Pacific women officiating at a high level, and we hope to be able to offer them opportunities at future regional tournaments, as well as growing the number of female match officials, in line with the growth of Pacific women’s rugby league across the board.”
Rugby league 9s wrapped up on Wednesday night with Cook Islands (gold), Tonga (silver) and Fiji (bronze) reaching the podium in the women’s tournament, while Samoa (gold), Fiji (silver) and Cook Islands (bronze) collected medals in the men’s tournament.
By Joanna Lester, Pacific Games News Service