Alana Thomas will achieve a career ambition four years ahead of schedule when she works with Fiji at Rugby World Cup 2021.
Former Wallaroos fly-half Thomas had set herself the target of working at RWC 2025, having made a successful transition into coaching with Melbourne Rebels Women and Australia A.
However, it was confirmed on Monday that the 38-year-old had earned a place on the RWC 2021 Coaching Internship Programme. She will join Fijiana as an assistant coach as the team prepare to make their tournament debut.
Thomas will work under new Fiji head coach Senirusi Seruvakula and will have responsibility for the defence and skills.
“I've always said my goal is 2025 to go to the World Cup as a coach,” Thomas told World Rugby.
“To have it come in 2021, and the way it’s come about to be an actual hands-on, fully-fledged assistant coach and taking up the internship, I was a bit stunned and shocked to start with.
“I'm just so excited, telling my mum and things like that. My mum’s just bursting at the seams to tell people and share the news with my little country town up there.
“So, it’s really exciting and there’s just such a great group of players coming through in Fiji.
“Seni, just wanting to learn off him, because he's such a well-respected coach. I'm really looking forward to working with him and learning off him as well.”
‘Chicken and egg’
Prior to being accepted onto the Coaching Internship Programme, Thomas attended the World Rugby Women’s High Performance Academy in Stellenbosch in 2019, and was part of the virtual High Performance Academy that took place online earlier this year.
Thomas is eager to get back on the training pitch and put into practice the lessons that she learned remotely in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
And, she believes that initiatives such as the Coaching Internship Programme and Women’s High Performance Academy are vital in order to give female coaches an opportunity to gain the experience that is required to land jobs at the elite level.
“The first thing that you usually get told when you walk into an interview or apply for a high-performance job is, ‘Oh, you don't have any experience’,” Thomas said.
“And, it’s sort of chicken and egg. How can you get the experience if you don’t have the opportunity?
“I think this opportunity and this internship is a massive boost for women’s rugby and for women’s coaches. And I think that other sports are going to possibly look at this and say, ‘Hey, this is something we need to go down’.
“Because exposing a coach to a 12-month period in a World Cup year, coaching hands-on in a team, learning from the best coaches that are in the nation is going to give that experience.”
Thomas is confident that more female players will transition into coaching if they are given the opportunities to do so.
She also believes that promoting female coaches into an elite environment “brings a different lens to it, a diversity in thought and something that’s probably a little bit different than your traditional ways of doing things”.
Thomas is hopeful that in two or three Rugby World Cup cycles there will not be a need for initiatives such as the Coaching Internship Programme, as women will be more prevalent in high performance.
“We’re just about to break through the ceiling with this internship programme,” she added.
“Hopefully, in the next 10 years we won’t need a coach intern programme because every national team will have female coaches. It’ll just be a part of the norm.”
Thomas represented the Wallaroos at Rugby World Cup 2006, playing against France, USA and Ireland during the tournament in Canada.
She admits New Zealand 2021 will be a “very different” experience, as a coach, however it is one the 38-year-old is relishing.
Although COVID-19 restrictions mean she will not be able to travel to Fiji until the new year, at the earliest, Thomas has already started poring over video footage and is in contact with Seruvakula.
“There’s been some really good groundwork set up [in Fiji] by Simon (Raiwalui) and the high performance team,” Thomas explained.
“It’s just so exciting for one, working with Fiji, such a proud rugby nation. The fact that they’ve got some really good people in their high-performance unit, they’ve got Seni as the head coach, and they’ve been doing some really good things around the women’s space.
“Being their first World Cup, they’re breaking ceilings and they’re doing some really good things. So, I’m just hoping I can go over there and add to that with them.”
Although RWC 2021 will be Fiji’s first global 15s tournament, it seems that Thomas and her new team will travel to New Zealand full of confidence.
“The key thing is preparing these girls to go over and play well,” Thomas said. “Being their first World Cup, there’ll obviously be excitement, but there’ll be a lot of nerves as well.
“But I think I saw an article probably a couple of months ago from our captain who just said, ‘We’re not going to make up the numbers, we’re going to create waves’. And I think that’s just a great attitude to have.”