England’s squad shows diversity but are BAME communities under-represented elsewhere in the game? Rugby World investigates…

BAME Representation in Rugby

Zainab Alema has a vivid memory of sprinting down the wing for Ealing U18. She was so delighted to have scored a try that she didn’t realise her headscarf had come off during the run. These days she wears a scrum cap over the top to keep it in place, with leggings and a long-sleeved top also forming part of her rugby kit to observe her Muslim faith.

She admits that when she first played rugby – to complete a practical element for her A Level in PE – she wasn’t sure if she belonged, but ten years later the sport is now a huge part of her life. She has gone on to play for the University of Hertfordshire, Millwall and Barnes – “the friendliest rugby team in London” – and has even set up a rugby charity, Studs in the Mud, to help provide boots and equipment for girls’ and women’s teams in Ghana and Morocco.

BAME Representation in Rugby

Family values: Zainab Alema with her children after a Barnes match

“At the beginning I felt uncomfortable and didn’t know how I fitted in,” reflects Alema, who moved from centre to No 8 two years ago. “The girls had their legs out, but what was I going to do? In Islam you cover up and I thought I would have to compromise my beliefs to be part of this sport. Then I found out the laws had changed to add that you could wear a headscarf for religious reasons. To know rugby accommodated that, I felt welcome and took it more seriously.

“My dad wasn’t too keen at the start and my mum was worried I’d get injured. With my African background, further education was okay but sport wasn’t so common for African women, Muslims especially. I think my dad was scared I would change and I wouldn’t be the same person, but now he can see how much I love it and knows it makes me happy. I’d say playing rugby has even made me a better person. It’s rugby’s values – respect, discipline.”

Alema enjoys rugby so much she was back playing early this year, just two months after giving birth to the youngest of her three children last November. However, she wants to see more people from black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) communities playing the sport. Alema believes parents can be apprehensive about their children, particularly daughters, playing contact sport but would encourage them to go to watch a game.

“I know two other Muslim BAME people playing rugby and that’s shocking,” says 27-year-old Alema. “At the top level there are a few BAME players but significantly there aren’t many Muslims. It goes back to when I first played and didn’t think I belonged, didn’t think it was the sport for me. Watching Maggie Alphonsi when I was younger was a massive help; someone to look up to who looks like you.

“Things are changing but changing slowly. I’d definitely like to see more people (from BAME communities at elite level) but it’s easy to say that. We need to encourage more people at grass-roots level so they filter through. It’s a two-way thing – at the top and at grass roots.”

“Watching Alphonsi was a massive help; someone to look up to who looks like you”

The importance of role models is a common theme. It goes back to the idea that ‘you have to see it to be it’. That is why there has been a huge push to put women’s sport on television. The same applies to ethnic diversity. Ugo Monye grew up idolising Ian Wright, a black footballer who played for his local club, Arsenal. Maro Itoje has spoken of looking up to Monye and Topsy Ojo when he was coming through the rugby ranks. They played different positions to him but they were two of the few black professional players at that time. Seeing yourself represented and reflected in elite sport can be inspirational.

Monye says: “Ian Wright looked like me, had a similar upbringing to me. You look at television and build an affinity with people you relate to.”

More than a third of England’s 2019 World Cup squad come from BAME backgrounds and that diversity could be hugely significant for the sport. London Irish wing Ben Loader says: “Seeing so many different faces in that England team is pretty powerful. Young kids, wherever they’re from, can see a face in that team and think, ‘That could be me’.

“Seeing an England team with so many different backgrounds and races is really inspiring and shows what’s possible if you have ambition and drive.”

GRASS ROOTS

The ‘see it’ element looks to be improving, in England at least, but what of ‘be it’? How easy is it for those kids inspired by watching Itoje or Kyle Sinckler or Anthony Watson to get into rugby? Is the sport accessible?

Premiership Rugby’s Project Rugby aims to increase participation by those from BAME communities as well as those from lower socio-economic backgrounds and disabled people. It introduces young people to the sport, with every Premiership club running programmes in their area. Andy Keast, the London Irish Foundation chief executive, talks about the initiative “breaking down a lot of barriers”.

“Seeing so many different faces in the England team is powerful”

Alema has participated in Project Rugby events, too, saying: “I did a speech to kids at Allianz Park. I’d been watching them play tag but they didn’t realise I was a rugby player, so it was a bit of a shock when I did the speech. A few Muslim girls from one school were intrigued and happy to see someone BAME up there talking to inspire them.

“Seeing is believing. If it’s a white, middle-class guy coming into the school, they might not listen because it’s hard to see the connection. If I’d seen someone like me, a black woman playing rugby, coming into school when I was 17 I’d think, ‘I can do that’.”

Monye believes schools are the key to increasing rugby’s diversity, particularly in cities. He’s hoping to work with the RFU on a scheme to introduce the game as an after-school activity and says: “It can be hard to get involved in the game at inner-city schools and I think there’s more to be done to expose groups at a young age, to say rugby is a game for all shapes and sizes and everyone is welcome.

“Not everyone will be the next Owen Farrell or Maro Itoje but I believe, without sounding self-righteous, that the values you learn in rugby are transferable to life – communication, confidence, discipline, hard work, enjoyment.

“I’d love to get more people at a younger age playing in inner cities, where there is the most diversity of faces and backgrounds. It starts in schools, then through the kids families get involved and then through families they take their kids’ friends to the local rugby club too. Everyone buys in.”

Sinckler, who started out at Battersea Ironsides, is also launching a foundation, R3cusants, and says: “My biggest thing is when you hear city kids haven’t had the opportunities to succeed in sport. I want to use the platform I have now to give people who haven’t had a fair crack at it an opportunity.”

That might be as simple as providing someone with an Oyster card to get to training. For while there are initiatives to introduce children to rugby, the crucial part is retaining those who engage with the sport – pointing them towards their local clubs and ensuring they can get there, getting parents and families on board, making sure they have access to boots and kit.

BAME Representation in Rugby

Wing man: Ben Loader scores for London Irish against Wasps (Getty Images)

Loader grew up close to Reading Abbey RFC and his parents were happy to take him and brother Danny, now a striker at Reading FC, to participate in various sporting activities. He says: “A lot of it is to do with access to facilities. I was lucky but a lot of people don’t have the same access and rugby isn’t one of those sports you can play on your own to pick up. It’s not easy to do tackling practice on your own whereas football is a game everyone is aware of and it’s easy to go and kick a ball about.

“Projects like Project Rugby get people involved, take rugby to people, to kids who haven’t been exposed to it before, and then they can decide whether they like it or not.”

COACHING

Collin Osborne, for a long time the only black coach to have worked in the Premiership, brought through the likes of Monye and Sinckler, amongst many others, at Harlequins. While he admits to being something of a cynic when it comes to diversity programmes, suggesting they can be box-ticking exercises with little legacy built before moving on to the next one, he does think 4G pitches and improved junior set-ups at community clubs mean rugby is more accessible.

Collin Osborne

On the ball: Collin Osborne coached at Harlequins for many years (Getty Images)

He also believes the lack of diversity in coaching set-ups should not yet be a big concern. He certainly doesn’t think rugby needs to introduce something similar to the NFL’s Rooney Rule, where American Football teams are required to interview BAME candidates when coaching roles become available.

“In rugby union, to get into coaching at a senior level, you need to have played at a reasonable level to have credibility,” says Osborne. “When you look at the sport’s age profile, it went professional in 1995 so it’s 25 years. The generation who have got a playing background at a professional level, the crop who grew up knowing rugby as a professional option, are only just graduating to coaching and they need to gain experience before becoming head coaches or directors of rugby when they’re a bit older.

“I expect it’ll happen to someone like Topsy Ojo. Kyle Sinckler will be an excellent coach when he hangs up his boots and has done a lot of coaching at Guildford already. Rugby has always been a profession for them and there’s a natural progression to coaching. At the moment I don’t think we’ve reached the critical mass of (BAME) people who have come through the game, out of the game and into coaching. It’ll take time but I’m pretty confident it will happen.

“When guys like Anthony Watson and Maro Itoje finish playing, I’d like to think there will be opportunities for them in coaching if that’s what they want to do.”

REPRESENTATION

Are BAME communities under-represented in rugby? It’s the crucial question and one that is so hard to answer. Traditionally the answer would be yes, but if you look at the current England squad it’s hugely diverse – more diverse than the country itself. The 2011 census showed that 14% of the population of England and Wales are ethnic minorities, while BAME players – 11 of 31 – represented 35% of the England World Cup squad last year.

The other home nations don’t have as much diversity in their squads as England but the populations of those countries are also less diverse, with less than 8% from BAME backgrounds.

Yet what is so difficult to know is the breakdown of ethnicities playing at grass-roots level. It’s not a statistic the RFU collates and it is hard to source meaningful data. Around 200,000 people from across the country take part in Sport England’s Active Lives survey and figures from that suggest no black participants from that group took part in rugby union even once between November 2017 and November 2018. However, the number of black pros seems to undermine that data.

BAME Representation in Rugby

‘Maggie the Machine’: Alphonsi on the attack for England (Getty Images)

“Are BAME people under-represented in rugby? It’s not a straightforward question,” says Osborne. “You want representation to reflect the country. There’s no way to get any real hard numbers. In some ways it’s a good thing – if we’ve come as far as we think we have, it shouldn’t be a question any more. If, say, 10% of the population are BAME I’d like to see a similar-level figure in rugby or any walk of life.”

While there is growing diversity in rugby, which is reflective of society with ethnic minorities in the UK increasing between the 2001 and 2011 censuses, there still appear to be very few Asians playing the game, particularly at the top level. Marcus Smith, who was born in the Philippines to a Filipina mother and English father, is probably the most high profile, but that lack of visibility could limit growth amongst the largest of the ethnic minorities in the UK and Ireland.

Tajiv ‘Tosh’ Masson is thought to be the only Sikh to have played professional rugby, for Quins in the late 2000s, and believes the sport is missing out on an opportunity to broaden its audience.

“Growing up I looked for professional British Asian sportsmen to look up to. Harpal Singh played football for Leeds – he didn’t even make a first-team appearance but was someone I could look up to because I could relate to him. Role models let you see that it’s possible.

BAME Representation in Rugby

Centre point: Tajiv ‘Tosh’ Masson during his Harlequins days (Getty Images)

“I don’t know whether the RFU and the clubs are actively doing things to encourage British Asians to play rugby or whether they think it’s an issue, but they’re missing out on bigger diversity in terms of players and audience. A lot of British Asians would watch rugby if British Asians were playing. If a club like Quins in West London marketed and pushed an Asian player, they could get another 2,000 fans.”

Masson was so determined to make it as a pro that he persuaded Quins to let him join the academy and not get paid. Six months later he had a contract and was playing in the first team.

“It’s about raising awareness. Someone reading this could be the next pioneer, could take the baton on”

He used to think that the reason there were so few Asian players was down to parents not valuing professional sport as a career, but his experiences since have changed that view. He may not have been a “household name” in his rugby-playing days but he is now regularly contacted by the parents of Asian players asking for advice on how their child can progress towards a pro career. He points to an initiative by Chelsea FC, who run a football tournament called Asian Star for Asian children, and suggests that rugby could do something similar.

“I used to shy away from the fact I was Asian – I didn’t want it to be a thing and wanted to concentrate on rugby,” he says. “The next generation of Asians can inspire other players. We’ve identified this gap and someone reading this could be the next pioneer, could take the baton on. It’s about raising awareness.”

It may be hard to get definitive figures on BAME participation in rugby but it is easy to see how much the people we’ve spoken to from those communities – just like any other – derive enjoyment from the sport and would like to see more people taking part. Alema talks of the friendships formed and values learnt, but it’s this message that provides an apt way to end: “The beauty of rugby is you don’t have to change who you are.”

This article originally appeared in the June 2020 edition of Rugby World magazine.

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