Karina Soerjanatamihardja: Growth of Women’s Rugby in Indonesia
Karina Soerjanatamihardja has been involved in rugby for more than a decade, and for a number of years has been a driving force in shaping the growth of women’s rugby in Indonesia. Karina is also the recipient of the 2019 Asia Rugby Women’s Rugby Development Award as well as the 2020 World Rugby Women’s Executive Leadership Scholarships in Asia.
We spoke at length with Karina, who is the Head of Women’s Rugby Indonesia and First Deputy Chair of Women’s Advisory Committee at Asia Rugby about her own roots in the game, the challenges and successes in growing women’s rugby in Indonesia, and her personal goals to increase the presence and participation of women in leadership roles in rugby.
Karina Soerjanatamihardja: Rugby roots
What are your roots in rugby? You started playing in Hong Kong from what I know, so what took you there and why did you start playing?
My father is a diplomat so I have spent most of my life moving between other countries and Indonesia, back and forth, and at the time my father was posted in HK (Hong Kong) and I caught up with him after finishing school in Malaysia and moved to HK to start University. I was also 18 at the time, so if I wanted to sign up to things I was at the age where I didn’t need parental signatures any more.
So I have been interested in rugby since I was very little as my dad’s first posting was in Melbourne, Australia. We spent a lot of time throwing the ball around and then afterwards in Austria I was playing touch rugby and the bug stuck ever since, and I always wanted to play contact rugby but my parents were so against us playing contact sports.
So when I was 18 and in Hong Kong, I thought it was the perfect time to try rugby and I wanted to actually try touch rugby after seeing an advertisement for beginners, as that’s how they used to recruit new players every summer, they would have adults summer camps and courses for age groups for kids in Hong Kong.
I got into playing contact rugby and played in HK for two seasons (2009-2011) and then had to move back to Indonesia as my dad was moving back.
In Australia was it just you and your dad, or was your whole family into sports?
Actually, my dad is more into motorsports, my mother used to play basketball and volleyball and my whole family is an academic and sporting family. My grandma was a volleyball athlete and my grandpa is a professor and was a football (soccer) athlete but never went pro.
So we have a sports background and my grandpa believes sports build character but I never found my sport until I found rugby.
I grew up doing Indonesian traditional dancing (and still do and teach). I played football and I liked swimming but I felt like my body could more from my experience of dancing and using my whole body. I found rugby which was perfect as I was fit enough to run, I had a strong lower body, the scrums were fun and so was the contact, and that got me hooked.
And you had a funny anecdote about how you broke the story to your parents about playing rugby?
The conversation was, well the registration fee was not much and I could afford that, so my parents asked why I didn’t tell them I was going to play rugby and (pauses), my father doesn’t believe in contact sports and I always wanted to play them. He is a pacifist and a diplomat, so he doesn’t believe in aggression and violence.
Yeah, and he channelled it through racing and motorsports and I think it’s because we are all girls (Karina has two sisters) and we are all dancers and I played the violin at the time which was also one of the issues. When I started rugby I was going to complete some violin exams and my mother was worried about injuries.
But It’s something I wanted to do, and it was my decision and that was super empowering to me. I spent 200 Hong Kong Dollars to register, which was not much and at the time. I needed a social scene to make friends and I just put myself out there and took a big risk.
Was your family supportive or was it an arm wrestle when you started playing rugby?
In the beginning, it was an arm wrestle. Like they would say why would you do this and hurt yourself? And I would tell my mom “you played basketball and you played all throughout college”. My mom understood where I was coming from and she held herself back and I knew my parents did as they know once I make up my mind it’s very hard to get me to change my mind. They have been very supportive of most of the risk-taking I have done most of my life.
The hardest part, well they only started accepting me playing was when my sisters started playing rugby too. I somehow influenced my sisters, who were in middle school, to play. So the leagues in Hong Kong would take place on Saturdays for Seniors and Sundays for the Juniors. So my parents would watch on both days.
My parents saw that sport brought the kids together, it tied us together and it has a special part of our lives. It’s the one thing in my life that’s fully controlled by me and that’s empowering.
Representing Indonesia in Rugby Sevens
Karina played Tens and fifteens rugby in Hong Kong and even represented Indonesia in their first national women’s 7s team in Singapore in 2010.
How did that first Indonesia women’s rugby sevens team come about?
Once I started playing rugby in HK, I knew I would eventually return to Indonesia. There was rugby at the time in my country but only for men. So in the summer of 2010, I helped with the Asia 5 Nations (A5N, now called the Asia Rugby Championship) which was hosted in Jakarta for two years and I was in touch with Indonesian Rugby. The networking at the time got me to know who was running the rugby union at the time.
In 2010 it was a random time to have a women’s team. They had some girls playing in schools but not contact rugby. There was a women’s 7s exhibition game scheduled to take place before the Men’s A5N games and I refereed that game. The Indonesia Rugby Union wanted to make a statement and have a women’s team enter the Singapore 7 later that year and I got the call in Hong Kong to join them.
It was about getting out there and getting experience. I was nervous as most of the team hadn’t played in-game situations but I wanted to represent my country. So we went to Singapore and didn’t train together until the day before the tournament! But it was a special year. I knew it was not about winning, it was a learning process and I loved being part of that. I also learned a lot about my own playing abilities and that sevens rugby is not for me! But it’s a great development game.
The other countries at the Singapore Sevens were Hong Kong (I played against some of my club teammates, I was playing at Causeway Bay in HK), Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and maybe one more?
The Indonesian Women’s 7s rugby team is called the Cendrawasih 7s.
Rugby Development in Indonesia
How were the early stages of rugby development in Indonesia and what goals did you have?
You know, everything in rugby just fell into place. I never planned anything, I didn’t delve into rugby straight away, I was looking for work first when I moved back there.
I had also been diagnosed in 2012 with Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) so playing became impossible for me. It’s better now but it was bad at the time. I lost a lot of weight and my life took a turn as I had to readjust.
By the end of 2012, I was hospitalized and had to resign and I had no idea what was going to happen. I didn’t know if I was going to come out of the hospital alive and if I was going to walk or run again. Just thinking of playing rugby was impossible.
It took a year for me to fully recover, and in 2014 I was looking to get back to work and I was asked to become a Rugby Development Officer with Indonesian Rugby, they had just started the Get Into Rugby (GIR) program. They offered me the job and I started building the GIR network in 2014. I didn’t have big goals at the time, I was just happy to be around rugby again, I got coaching experience and my World Rugby Certifications.
At the time in 2014, I was encouraged to join a World Rugby educator course for girls and the Indonesian Rugby Union was very supportive. The program was a women’s only program held in the Philippines. Gene Tong (HKRU), who today I have the highest respect for, ran the course and they had a way of breaking your confidence and building it back up. I realised I had a lot of potentials, the skills were universal and not applicable only to rugby. I didn’t expect to pass but I did and ever since I have been on a trajectory to where I am now.
After that, we came up with the plans in Indonesia to grow the game and use GIR as we had very limited resources.
Karina Soerjanatamihardja: Growth of Women’s Rugby in Indonesia
In 2017, Indonesian rugby went through a major restructure and we chatted about what the changes involved.
At that time we had an Indonesian versus Western people involved in the same rugby organisation. If we wanted to have the sport recognised nationally, we had to have the non-Indonesian people’s involvement – political influence decrease. I don’t know if a lot of the non-Indonesians who had helped build rugby were ready to let go, or let it go to the Indonesians. But we had to go through that.
I even stopped for a year as I had too much (GIR, Asian Games, etc). I was one of the first to be involved with the NOCC negotiations to have rugby in the 2018 Asian Games. We had to process a lot and much had to be approved by a lot of organisations, and there was a lot of politics so I needed a break afterwards as I was being pulled in many directions. So I took a break and started my own career so when I did come back to rugby, I could do so on a voluntary basis and have more control.
At the Asian Games in 2018, the Indonesian Men’s 7s rugby team finished 11th out of 12 teams and the Indonesian Women finished 8th from 8 teams.
I knew I would come back to contribute but needed some time away from rugby, so I got involved with radio and presenting and I had more space to think about rugby again.
In 2017, the Head of Indonesian Women’s rugby role was given to a deserving woman and I was an Organisational Secretary. At the end of 2018, the Indonesian Rugby Chairman called me and told me it was time to become the new Head of Women’s Rugby.
There was also a conference planned for 2018 to take place in Bangkok, Thailand with Sir Bill Beaumont (World Rugby Chairman) was a guest and they wanted me to be present, as people were asking about me, and I have been in the role of Head of Women’s Rugby in Indonesia since then.
What are your biggest goals now, with heading the program, you won the Asia Rugby Award in 2019 and were just awarded a World Rugby Scholarship? How do you want to grow the game in Indonesia?
I’m very thankful that in Indonesia we have a rugby and political culture, at least for playing, that there is a policy that there has to be a balance of women and men rugby players. The GIR records show we have a lot of girls playing and I’m confident our provinces know that girls get as much opportunity as boys. At the grassroots level, our structure is autonomous in the provinces (there are more than 30 provinces in the country and 18 active rugby provinces).
GIR numbers show very good participation in each region and each province has women and men’s rugby teams. Due to this policy, it pushed the provinces to focus on the men and women equally.
My goal is the next step. To keep the girls involved and for them to take the leap of faith and take more leadership roles in rugby. And that’s difficult, we talk about volunteer work, at this point its dedication and passion but I know a lot of girls want it and for me to set up pathways for this to happen.
At the governance level, we need more girls involved. That’s where my strategic planning comes in, and bring more confidence for the girls, and why I hoped for the scholarship to happen.
For me, growing the women’s game is not just about playing but the leadership roles are important.
I put 11 years of networking into rugby and it’s become a huge blessing. If you really want something you put in the work to get it. I need to plan out the pathways over the next 4 months and the scholarship mentoring will give me that opportunity.
World Rugby Women’s Executive Leadership Scholarship
Tell us more about the main objectives of the World Rugby Women’s Executive Leadership Scholarship and the mentoring aspect?
My goals with the scholarship are also personal development. I want to do a Masters degree in cross-culture communication and I aim to, outside of rugby, although it’s not mutually exclusive, to be a culture consultant. I will be a better culture consultant and can train our staff and Rugby Unions to be more culturally fluent and bridge the gaps, which is what we want right?
Also, I’m doing a study tour across a few places which are still to be determined, in countries where rugby inclusion is more mature and particularly in non-six nations countries (England, France, Wales, Ireland, Scotland, Italy) – looking at what strategies and pathways they have in place. And engagement to promote and introduce the game of rugby to more people.
The mentoring is not mandatory but I applied for it. I’m on the Asia Rugby Committee and plan to be an Executive Com member so I want to learn about transformational leadership etc. So World Rugby has paired me with a mentor from South Africa, which happened really quickly. My mentor is Ilhaam Groenewald, appointed as Rugby South Africa’s First Female Executive Council Member and Chief director of Maties Sports at Stellenbosch University.
She knows her rugby and understands the organisational politics and awareness you need to have in an organisation that is predominantly male and white South African, as she is a woman of colour.
I just had my first meeting with her and I was very inspired as she knows how to stand her ground as a woman, and to go as far as she has, is amazing. It is what rugby is all about, no matter how big it is, it feels like a tight-knit network and this mentorship is amazing as I will learn so much to achieve my goals.
Get Into Rugby Indonesia
Get Into Rugby, which we know Asia Rugby likes to tout and be a flag bearer of, we sometimes feel the numbers aren’t as important as it lacks contingency. You have worked with this program for years now – how do you feel it has benefited Indonesian rugby?
In Indonesia, I feel it’s very effective especially in the provinces and for the numbers, it’s more than that.
GIR makes it easier for us as it gives us the tools we need, so when we introduce the game to a new province, who have no rugby coaches or experience, GIR becomes an easy way to introduce the game to the general public.
In Indonesia, the way to sell GIR is through character building and you can tailor the program to your needs in your country. We use it as the main promotional rugby program at a grassroots level as we can tweak how it’s presented. We have focussed on the values and character building as we have young students and kids and the teachers love it. In Indonesia, the education system lacks the tools needed to teach these life skills, like discipline.
During this pandemic, we have regrouped with all the GIR coordinators to take it to the next level and they need to be able to coach the next GIR coordinators. They need to manage the program in their province, and teach this and promote it, and we have used webinars to do this. The improve their managerial, communication skills, especially with rugby which is stigmatised.
We look at GIR and how each country is running it. The numbers can be easy to generate but we are now putting in the building blocks for the next step as we want to retain these players and these kids we have introduced to the game for the past two years. Now they need coaches and set up curriculums and leagues and we are slowly building these building blocks. Because Indonesia is still at the very beginning, we have the luxury to make mistakes here and there.
I don’t think without the Get Into Rugby program we would have had the resources or knowledge to come up with a program ourselves. It’s an easy introduction to coaching. It’s also a good filter for us to assess the talent pool and take it to the next level.
I didn’t realise when we started it would be such a big tool and how we could extract the data we need from the program.
Indonesia national women sevens
The Indonesian national women’s 7s rugby team, I saw them play 7s rugby at the recent SEA Games in the Philippines in 2019. The amount the team had developed was very impressive. Geographically, Indonesia is diverse and massively spread out, how do you scout for the players and how do you create pathways for the rugby talent?
We are actually working backwards. This team was specifically scouted for the national team before the Asian Games, some of them had never played rugby before and some were scouted from other sports. There were some track and field athletes, some water polo players. Some of the girls had some rugby experience. This national team is an exclusive one, we had to take the route due to the Asian Games in 2018 being hosted in Indonesia.
Honestly, we were not experts in high performance and we had some experts come in, not from a rugby background, and they did very well. We had someone with a great background with the Indonesian basketball and he brought in a coach and the team had funding as Rugby Sevens was an Olympic sport.
But the team was effectively quarantined together and became so good because they played together for the past two years and their bond is very strong. We had to take a fast route with that one and the high performance is happening but now it needs to be adapted to look at grassroots players and scout within the rugby family and not exclusive scouting.
Only now, do we have the strategic planning, which we didn’t have before, and a better vision to work towards as well as the resources and knowledge in Indonesia rugby.
Now we are taking our time to feed into the next generation of the national rugby team. That women’s team did so well as we had the government support and resources and it allowed them to play professionally. They were able to live, breathe and play rugby.
From an experimental and expense point of view, and I understand what you are saying, but was it successful? Is it sustainable?
Yes, from an experimental point of view it was very successful but from a financial point of view, it’s not yet sustainable. But now we have gotten so much more buzz around rugby in the country, that we now have more market power to sell to sponsors and it has opened more doors to opportunity. For now, we don’t have the sponsors yet to make it sustainable but because of the trophies and buzz from media platforms, we will see. We can focus on sponsorship for better financial sustainability of all of our programs.
Now with the focus on women’s and rugby development in Indonesia, we can convince sponsors to collaborate with us, not just support playing, but perhaps on leadership skills, it is a juicy CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) market right now in Indonesia.
What’s helping create the buzz in Indonesia – was it purely the high profile, back to back events (Asian Games 2018 and SEA Games 2019)?
It was definitely those events and also because it was pretty much run by the same people. The only way we could prove to Asia Rugby and World Rugby was to be gutsy enough to take the tournament and run it in 2018. In between those two tournaments I was also running around the country to deliver the GIR rugby courses. There was a period where I was hardly at home, my mom was here from Australia for a month and I hardly saw her. It was crazy – 2018 was a year in which I don’t know how I survived it rugby-wise.
But there is a lot of trust in rugby in Indonesia and we thank the governing bodies for their trust in us and supporting us. I hope that this will mean more partnerships and resources in the future.
Future of rugby in Indonesia
And being optimistic, post-COVID-19 whenever that is, where do you see things heading. There is the Women’s Rugby World Cup in NZ in 2021 and the Olympics which will hopefully create more buzz in Asia. What do you see as the big win?
I want, in 3 years, our Indonesian women’s 7s rugby team to be sustainable and just as good or better than now, and a lot of the players now are young so they still have many playing years ahead of them. I want them to flourish ad play in bigger competitions and to win the 7s Asia Rugby Trophy Series. It’s definitely possible.
And with the Women’s Rugby World Cup, I want my girls in Indonesia to experience 15s rugby fully, and not just in Jakarta. I want that buzz in New Zealand to be felt all the way here and for them to understand that even if you don’t make the 7s team, you can play 15s.
The XVs vs Sevens rugby argument
In 2020 just before COVID-19 put a hold on things, the first women’s 15s game was played in Jakarta, Karina told us.
We made this year educational and we had minicamps with players from two local rugby clubs and put the sides together to play a game. We hope in 2021 to have the two clubs competing with each other and the player positions available.
The girls were so disappointed that as a season was starting, that the pandemic happened.
I want our provincial Rugby Unions to see there is more to rugby than 7s and the way we want to sustain our players after we finish this batch of GIR, is for them to have an option to play 15s and sevens. Its the only way to make it sustainable as sevens rugby is not sustainable. It’s not going to be fun for 80% of the kids when they get to a certain age group.
We want rugby to be enjoyed and we need club scenes to grow and not be elite-down. It should be the other way around. And that’s our national strategic plan, for the provincial unions to have their own provincial leagues and we will have a chance to stay in the game and not just to play it.
I want to see more women in leadership roles and I would love to not be the only woman at a meeting table in Indonesia as it gets old very quickly. I’m looking forward to helping mentor more women and we are working towards that.
Asia Rugby: New leadership and & structures
The plans sound very positive. With your role in the new Asia Rugby set up with all the changes, you are part of the women’s adversity committee. How positive and optimistic are you for Asia Rugby in growing the game?
I taught myself not to be pessimistic about anything. I feel like things happen for a reason and it’s up to us to work with this change. I have heard there are a lot of different opinions and spoken out views about the changes.
I feel like me being part of this Women’s Advisory Committee, and it’s more like a transformational advisory committee, will contribute to reminding the other committees to involve women. This will be the game changer as we will sit down and listen to all other committees to make sure we push for women’s involvement at all levels and to be inclusive.
That’s a big change that the Asia Rugby President has agreed to, and I don’t think any other regions’ rugby unions have done that before.
And I am very much a rookie when it comes to the regional organisation, and I am still learning and looking at how I can contribute and I am looking to learn from Ada Milby. This is a big next step for me. The biggest and most daunting step and I am probably one of the youngest members on the committees. The pressure is on to be respectfully demanding for respect if you know what I mean.
It’s me challenging myself to have the confidence to know to say to myself – ‘Karina, you have been put in this spot for a reason and because people think you deserve it’, and have the confidence to speak out when I can.
Indonesia National Olympic Games – Rugby 7s
And in Indonesia what is the plan in coming out of the current COVID-19 lockdowns?
We haven’t had an actual lockdown but physical distancing rules and these will be eased. I have heard that it looks like in July we can start training again, no events but teams can train. It is tough to say if we can have international competitions any time soon.
We are hoping at least the provincial 7s rugby teams can be training by July or August.
We were supposed to have the National Olympics in October and all the provinces here had been getting ready over a number of years and teams qualified in 2019 and now the tournament has been moved to 2021.
We had 15 provinces compete to qualify for the National Olympics sevens and 4 or 5 men and women’s teams qualified and should compete at the National Olympics which will now take place in 2021. And we should be scouting at the Games for national team players.
Any final messages in keeping mentally and physically active?
Stay healthy and safe and that includes taking care of yourself mentally, and if you are an athlete, keep yourself fit. Also, be mindful of your government rules in your country. We all want to get back on the playing fields and see our friends and travel but some sacrifices have to be made right now, so if it’s necessary for us to stay at home, we have to do it.
I understand the frustration with all these months staying at home, but if you can stay put, please do so. Don’t put anyone’s health at risk and we can be out there as soon as possible.
We would like to thank Karina for her time and wish her all the best with the World Rugby Scholarship and multi-roles in developing the game in Indonesia and Asia. We have edited the original interview and will look to make the full audio interview available in the future.
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- Women and Girls Rugby Conference 2020 in HK.
- Rhys Jones: Rugby Development in Singapore.
- Steven Rodaway: Singapore Sevens General Manager.