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Pioneering dynamic duo leading from the front for women’s rugby

WITH PARTICIPATION levels at an all-time high, women’s rugby is one of the fastest growing sports in the United Kingdom. Shaunagh Brown and Sadia Kabeya are just two of four players of color in the England set up.

matthew chadder spoke to the pioneering dynamic duo about their experiences and how they are breaking down barriers in a sport which has traditionally been dominated by white middle-class males.

MC: Shaunagh, you have experience as both a firefighter and an athlete, what skills from those fields were you able to translate into rugby?

SB: Sport in general is all male dominated. So, I’ve always had to learn to be alpha in those environments and it has got to the point now we’re I actually enjoy going in the gym and going over to a bench and saying to a guy, ‘How many sets have you got left, because I want to warm up on that weight? I don’t need someone to tell me women can do it.

Bringing the different careers together, it just made me realize there’s no substitute for hard work. Muhammad Ali said it best, the fight is won before you’ve gotten on the pitch and it’s the same for any job or sport, you don’t just turn up on the day and hope you win

What’s it like being one of the youngest members of the squad?

SK: I think being one of the youngest players, you do have fewer expectations, you don’t have that weight on your shoulders of being a senior player.

So, I think it’s been really good coming in and being so young and being amongst such a really experienced squad because I get to learn and have fun.

However, it was very nerve wracking at first, especially being around my idols.

ROLE MODEL Sadia Kabeya poses for a portrait during the England Women’s Squad photocall at Bisham Abbey last October. Photo by Catherine Ivill – RFU/The RFU Collection via Getty Images

You mentioned nerves, how did you handle them?

SK: Being able to take a step back and realize where I was, who’s around me and what I’m experiencing. I think that took away the nerves.

I know that I’ve got the skill set. I know I have the ability to be here. So, I think it’s always just about taking that step back and evaluating where I am and how lucky I am to be here.

You’ve had a very quick rise in the world of rugby. What’s that been like for you?

SB: I wouldn’t say I had to deal with it because for me, I decided I was going to play for England and so that was all that was going to happen. None of it came as a surprise.

I’ve done this, because of me and my mindset and that’s something money can’t buy which is lucky because, growing up, we didn’t have any money and I am not from a rugby background at all.

I am a mixed-race female. On paper, I’m not supposed to be playing rugby for England and yet, here I am.

So many people don’t understand how hard it is for people who are from different backgrounds so, it’s just about trying to get people to understand how hard I’ve had to work to be here and hopefully it means other people who have grown up in a similar situation to me realize that with hard work, you can do it too.

You’re doing a range of things off the field. How important do you think it is to use your position to be a role model and inspire others?

SB: In my last few years, I’ve realized that it’s incredibly important for people to be able to see me achieve.

I was lucky enough to grow up with a family who literally let me do whatever I want, it was never an argument for me to be who I want even at that young age. I know it’s always been achievable.

I have now realized that not everybody has that, so many people think you cannot play rugby as a woman. So, I’m at a stage where I want people to realize that they can achieve it if they put their all into it.

ALL SMILES Shaunagh Brown poses for a portrait during the England Women’s Squad photocall at Bisham Abbey.
Photo by Catherine Ivill – RFU/The RFU Collection via Getty Images

First of all, they’ve got to know that it exists so the more that I can do to get people to investigate what’s around them as well the better.

Go and put yourself out there, go and be the only black person in the room, go and be the only woman in the room. Just go and be yourself more importantly, and don’t think you have to be like everyone else.

I’m very much about celebrating difference, and not pretending people are the same and I’ll always encourage people to be themselves in an environment.

Women’s rugby has grown a lot over the last decade, how do you think you can help to contribute towards that growth with so long left in your career?

SK: I’ve come to realize that the way I’d want to affect the game is just by being a role model for people who look like me, having young girls being able to look up to someone who’s just like them.

The other day I got my first DM from a young black girl in school, who said she’s been following my journey and that she wants to be play for England one day, and she asked me for some advice.

For me, that was like, ‘Wow’, the fact that I can see how I am able to affect other people’s lives this early on in my career has really shown me that I want to be able to do more in the future.

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