PHOTOGRAPHY BY AMY MAIDMENT
WORDS BY VICTORIA McINTYRE
The 2021 Women’s Rugby World Cup is finally about to get underway in New Zealand. The long-awaited tournament is one of the many pandemic postponements across women’s sport. It is also the first rugby world cup since the release of No Woman, No Try; an exposé on the women’s game in England that offered insights into women’s rugby from people involved in the game at grassroots through to international competition. The documentary highlighted the significant cultural impact that women’s rugby provides, as well as exploring the current barriers to participation and growth.
England are a force to be reckoned with and are favourites to reach the final of this tournament. The squad has a balance of experienced stalwarts such as previous world-cup winner Alex Matthews, and youthful energy in the form of younger players such as Sadia Kabeya. It also has the benefit of players like Shaunagh Brown, who found rugby in later life. Shaunagh’s experience is unique – still relatively inexperienced in rugby at international level, but with a breadth and depth of life experience world cup rookies would be forgiven for envying.
Club71 sat down with these three inspiring women to chat about cultivating a team ethos that utilises the assets each player bring, whilst supporting them to achieve their potential and their key drivers. This conversation personifies female friendship and left us all wanting to be a part of this A-Squad!
C71: Sadia, you've spoken before about the importance of connecting with teammates and how they support you on and off the pitch. As someone who's got a reputation for bringing energy and fun to camps, what’s your favourite team building sessions to foster those relationships with their team, and what's the best advice you've had from any of the girls who have supported you with those things?
Sadia: At under 20s, I was a big character, but when you come into a bigger set-up I think it's easy to fall into your shell. Within my friends, I might be the joker, but within the group I’m more quiet. The best thing that I've been told, by this girl here, Miss Brown, is just go and be yourself. It's very easy to close up, to try to do things to stay in line and just go about the day, but you're here for a reason. You're here because you've been picked and you have the talent to be here, so make sure that you go and keep that flair, you keep that individuality that you came in with. You’ll have tough times in camp but the one thing that's always stuck with me is the advice to make sure that you don't lose yourself when you come into these bigger environments. As for the team bonding stuff …
Shaunagh: We’ve learned not to be competitive! (everyone laughs)
Sadia: As much as I do enjoy the big team bonding stuff and getting to know the whole team, you’ll have people who you vibe with, people who you like to chill out with and my favourite thing is to be able to go out for a coffee in small groups.
C71: What can we do to create an environment that allows new people to come into a squad and still be themselves without feeling like they have to close up and stay in line?
Alex: It's just making everyone comfortable, isn't it? Being approachable and making sure they can come to you, but go to them as well because they're the ones that are new into it. Approach them and ask them questions, questions about their life outside of rugby, about them as a person. I think that allows people to feel more comfortable to open up and be themselves. It's a learning environment. As the older ones, we're still learning. The energy that Sadia brings, I'm gaining from that as well, so we’re helping each other out.
C71: Alex, your teammates have told us they see you as a mentor. How do you continue to invest in your own development, both as a player and as a person, when you are seen as being the person who guides others?
Alex: Personally, I think it helps that I don't see myself as that (a mentor) at all. I don't see myself as a “valued member” or anything, so I think it just comes back to being yourself. If you're a genuine human being, at the end of the day you keep wanting to learn, help each other, keep improving. And that's my biggest thing anyway, I always want to keep pushing myself.
C71: Shaunagh, when it comes to approaching a senior tournament, there's often a lot of chat about the importance of senior players and the role that they play. As someone who has a wealth of experience outside of rugby, what do you feel that the younger teammates bring to these tournaments and events?
Shaunagh: It’s the fresh energy, the fresh ideas. My biggest learning occurs when I go and coach other people because they ask questions that might seem silly in an A-Squad environment such as ‘why do you do it like that?’ and sometimes my answer is ‘actually, I don’t know! It's ridiculous thing to do. Let's not do it anymore!’ Or I can go into detail and explain why it’s done that way. For new people coming into the A-Squad, it is a hard environment to ask questions. Nobody wants to be seen to be the person who doesn't know the answer, but nobody will know the answer if nobody asks. I’ve come away from meetings where nobody has put their hand up, so all the girls are speaking in groups, asking each other if they know what’s going on. The alternative is so much better; when someone in a meeting asks a question, as soon as you leave the meeting, everyone is like ‘I’m so glad you asked that ‘cause I didn’t know either!’ A big one is acronyms. For me, but that's just a whole different problem! Nobody knows what most acronyms mean!
You also want to show the younger ones that as tough as it is mentally and physically, it's worth being here to experience the national pride you get from representing your country. Sometimes I might be having a moan with someone older, but then if someone like Sadia or Maude Muir comes in, I don’t want to moan 'cause I don't want to bring them down.
C71: What makes your soul shine?
Shaunagh: Being outside in the sun with music by the beach. Yeah … by myself as well! (everyone laughs!) Being on a paddleboard by myself in the middle of the sea while everyone else is on land!
Alex: Mine is driving campervan, sitting around fire, being by some water.
Sadia: For me, being in a very small group, eating food. That's it. And sleeping. I love to sleep.
C71: What’s your favourite type of food?
Sadia: Italian. Yeah, like good pizza, good pasta. I love rugby but my favourite thing is just having a chill day. Going out to get something to eat, chilling on the sofa.
C71: What do what makes your heart feel heavy?
Sadia: Some of our rugby sessions! (Everyone laughs!)
Shaunagh: What makes my heart heavy is being trapped, being confined.
Alex: Mine is seeing other people be hurt. Unfairness, people being rude, bullying … I never understood bullies. Hate them!
Sadia: A lot of things. Even though I'm not like super competitive, I'm always trying to get better at something and if you get to point where you’re like ‘there's nothing else I can do to get better’, I think that's what we would like proper get me down.
C71: What do you do that allows you to perform your purpose?
Shaunagh: These are some good questions! Mine is when I go out and visit schools, generally schools that don't have rugby. I went back to my old school a few weeks ago and I was talking to them about life, the fact that anyone can play rugby and also how much rugby has changed my life. As much as it's hard, it's done so much good for my life. Sometimes I think ‘why am I doing this to myself? Why am I putting myself through this stress? Why do I go out there for two hours a day and sometimes come away hating it?’ But then I get messages coming through on Instagram. I’ve had messages from parents telling me how us rugby girls have inspired body positivity in their daughters. One young girl asked for advice to start a rugby club at her school, she’d tried twice already and been turned down. I gave her some tips and then she come back to me a couple of months later, she said ‘Shaunagh we've started a rugby club at our school!’ It's just those moments. Not only has she asked for help, but then she's taken action. That's what keeps me going when I'm face first in a scrum, I'm dead, I can’t even walk and I'm like ‘why do I do this to myself?’ I think of those moments that make you realise that we, as a group, are influencing so many people’s lives, and we don't know it until one or two messages come through.
Sadia: For me it’s when I take myself away from rugby. I think it's easy to get stuck in the rugby bubble especially living in a big rugby town like Loughborough where you speak, eat and breathe rugby. When I go home and I chat to my friends and family and I hear their thoughts and feel their love for me, and the things that I've been doing … it's been amazing for me to get to this point, but until I take a step back and look back from where I come from, I realise I sometimes take my progress for granted. I don't come from a rugby town, I come from south London where no one knows rugby. Being able to leave rugby life and go to my home life to see them speaking about me playing rugby, chatting to their friends about me playing rugby, that's what puts me back in it, and it makes me realise like I've done something. I'm doing it for a purpose and I'm making my friends back home proud, so I think that's my thing.
Alex: It's something I've actually struggled with throughout my career because growing up, all I ever wanted to do was be professional. I got there quite early on, I had my 21st birthday at the World Cup which we won and then after that was like ‘right, now what is my purpose? People go through their whole career striving for this, I'm 21 and I've already done it.’ I really struggled with that and my mindset had to shift. I was so performance-orientated, I had to shift to just enjoying it a lot more which I struggled with massively. Allowing myself to make the mistakes and grow as an individual rather than all about performance was a challenge. I also find it hard because I see professional rugby as a selfish choice. I have to miss family weddings and occasions just to do something that I enjoy. So I'm a big contradiction really! As long as I'm still enjoying it, I think at the moment playing rugby is my purpose. My parents have always said ‘you can only run for so long, so do it while you can and you can go back to everything else after.’ So yeah. Enjoyment, I suppose is my purpose!
C71: I am remembered because….
Shaunagh: I've got a very big-headed one I think it's a bit too much … I changed the face of women's rugby.
Shaunagh: I don't know how to say it not so selfishly 'cause I don't mean my physical face, but just the perception. Changed the perception. Yeah, raising awareness of women in sport and rugby.
Alex: So the other day, I found out that I’ve been playing with Lydia Thompson pretty much all our senior career and neither of us remember each other, so I don't think I'm going to be remembered! (Everyone laughs!)
Shaunagh: I think for you (Alex), it's the feeling of happiness. When I look at you it makes me feel happy looking at you. Just being around you.
Alex: I guess I try to bring happiness to people. I’m not that out there though, I just do it quietly.
Shaunagh: The small but important bits that people often forget, Al brings. “It's just rugby.” She says that a lot.
Alex: “It’s just a game”
Shaunagh: “Just play! We’re just playing”. She says that a lot.
Sadia: I’m only 20, I’ve not been here that long to be remembered!
Shaunagh: Sadia is an achiever! A classic example of why rugby should be played in state schools. That, for me is what is remembered about you, Sadia. When someone says ‘we've got enough people playing rugby in private schools and grammar schools’, I go ‘what about Sadia?’ If rugby didn’t happen in her school, we would literally not have Sadia playing for England. You have to remind people what they're good at and what they bring. I think as women, we have a problem with bigging ourselves up. Especially someone like Alex, she is very shy and I enjoy making her awkward because she owns her awkwardness, which is nice 'cause that's funny as well! (Everyone laughs). When you say to a group of girls, ‘what are you good at?’ they go ‘oh not a lot’, right? Well, what are you good at? What do you enjoy?
Alex: You forget though, don't you?
Shaunagh: Yeah. But sometimes you need to have a conversation with yourself. I do all the time. I think ‘why am I doing this to myself?’ and then I go ‘oh that's why.’
Read more inspirational stories in Issue 01 of Club71