The Red Roses star is not only making her views clear on rugby’s need to grow the game, but she’s also explaining practical ways to do exactly that
Shaunagh Brown on diversity in rugby
Shaunagh Brown is pure energy, and that energy comes through the lens.
Ask her to pull a variety of expressions for the camera and she reels off a couple of dozen without pause. Suggest a shot that involves her trying to catch ten balls and she’s well up for the challenge, even critiquing a certain writer’s throw (and highlighting that she’d like to play with smaller balls). It’s all done with a huge smile too; she jokes with the photographer that there’s no halfway house when asked to look happy, it’s a full-on beam.
Later, when the photo shoot is done but with a Harlequins training session to come, the energy still doesn’t dip as Brown sits down for the interview at Surrey Sports Park. It’s a full-on attitude with which she approaches most of life.
She starts talking through her tattoos, lifting her shirt to show a book inked on the left-hand side of her torso. The plan is to have pages falling down her left leg illustrating the “story of my life” – the England Commonwealth Games logo for her achievements in athletics’ throwing events; a flame for her time as a British Gas engineer; a couple of helmets – one to represent her spell as a commercial diver and one for her career as a firefighter; rugby posts and a ball; something for her nieces and nephews…
After spending the next hour talking to the Harlequins and England prop, you suspect that she might need to extend those pages to her right leg, too, for there is plenty more she is likely to do.
“She’s never been frightened to tackle anything”
Brown has always had the confidence to try things, never weighed down by the fear of failure. Her mum, Lesley Rickards, recalls her being given the lead role in a school play aged just four and taking it all in her stride. “She was on stage for about an hour and knew all the words, and she never got stressed,” says Rickards.
“That’s the thing about her throughout life – she’ll always have a go. She never appears to be concerned or stressed. If she’s a success, she will do better. If she fails, she’ll try again. She’s never been frightened to tackle anything and always wanted to try something new. Even now, if she says she will do something, there’s no question she’ll do it.”
That approach has been evident on the rugby pitch, but where there has been a noticeable shift over the past 18 months is how vocal Brown has become about issues like equality, race and diversity.
“During the first lockdown, when the Black Lives Matter protests were happening, I started thinking about who I am, what I stand for,” says 31-year-old Brown. “If I looked back at my Instagram for 18 months and took all the rugby pictures away, what would that look like, what is me? At that time, probably not a lot. In my head I knew I stood for a lot, but I wasn’t putting it out there.
“Then journalists wanted to speak to me, wanted to hear my story, and that’s an honour that they want to hear what I’ve got to say. It’s about telling my truth, in a respectful way; not shaming people and telling them they’re doing wrong, but offering solutions and education.
“You don’t sign up to be a role model but if you do yourself proud, stay true to yourself and discover who you are, sometimes you become a role model. At other times sporting success can make you a role model, like Emma Raducanu. You have to embrace it, it’s a privilege.”
Brown thinks the fact “the colour of my skin is so lightly toned” is why she hasn’t endured much overt racism, but that’s not to say she hasn’t experienced more subtle microaggressions. There are the assumptions around the position she plays or the differences of travelling with the England rugby team compared to a team of athletes going to the World Junior Championships.
“Who gets searched that little bit extra? Who has their bag looked at? In athletics there are lots of people who look like me; in rugby there aren’t. Why do you assume I’m a prop or a wing? Is it because I’m black? It’s about challenging perceptions and thought-provoking conversations, not shouting someone down.”
Ask Brown if rugby needs to change and she gives a succinct but definite answer: “Yes.” Rather than a radical overhaul, though, she suggests smaller, more easily achievable, changes. Why not add breadth to the music played in stadia or on social media clips, including reggae, Afrobeats and bashment alongside classic pop tunes? How about a larger range of food offerings?
She sends a voicenote the morning after our interview to give an example of how big a difference simple things like this can make. Tom Ilube, the RFU’s first black chair, held a welcome dinner with a menu featuring jerk wings and stewed lamb, rice and peas. “It was all done by the in-house chefs at Twickenham – he put the request in and they nailed it.
“There is light at the end of the tunnel with Tom Ilube now in place; he’s concentrating on increasing diversity in rugby, not just in players but staffing and volunteers. The growth of rugby has got to come from somewhere, and it’s going to come from women and girls, people of different skin colours. I think change will come with Tom as chair.”
Brown believes more thought needs to be given to who and where rugby is targeting when it comes to promotion and marketing, whether on social media or direct advertising. “Who is it aimed at?” she says of social media. “What pictures, music, even words are used?
“Rugby words can be quite exclusive, turnover, try. I went to open a new 4G pitch and a child went over the line, so I’m saying ‘score a try’, but they didn’t know they had to put the ball down. So language is important. The main thing is where we’re looking for more players, where we’re expanding the game.”
This takes Brown to schools and how, particularly in the men’s game, rugby cannot increase diversity if it continues to go to the same private schools to source talent. She points to Ugo Monye as an example; his rugby talents were spotted at Lord Wandsworth College and he was regarded as the fastest person on the sevens circuit when he played, but he has spoken of not even being the fastest person in his year when he was at state school.
“If you’re looking in the same places you find the same type of people,” says Brown. “The boys’ academies go to the same schools and find the same kind of talent. It’s not just colour, it’s class. I go to schools and they don’t have a clue what rugby is, but I can get them loving rugby in 45 minutes. But I can’t go back every week. Somebody has to grab hold of that and not keep aiming at the same schools if we’re to expand the game.”
“There’s still so much work to do around women in sport”
As Brown rightly points out, it’s women’s involvement in rugby that is seeing the sport continue to grow, but she also recognises that there is much work to be done.
Not just in terms of improving standards off and on the pitch but female-centred scientific research, more support around pregnancy and work-life balance. Harlequins Women are using the Protecht mouthguards that the men’s team have to monitor head impacts and training sessions are tailored around menstrual cycles, so if a lot of players are on their period they may ease off, but that is the proverbial tip of the iceberg in terms of data.
“There’s so much difference between men and women physiologically. Research is done with men and we’re told it ‘should be’ the same with women, but you can’t do that. It’s important to use women for research because the data is not there; it’s not just head injuries but injuries in general, the phase of your menstrual cycle you’re most injury prone… It’s all the research around that.
“We’re getting there slowly but there’s still so much work to do around women in sport, not just rugby – and women in work. So many people making decisions at the top of life in general, not just sport, think about them as men. They don’t think about what pregnancy looks like or have consideration around dropping kids at school and what time meetings are. Why not have flexible working?
“It’s about having those conversations and hopefully bringing things to people’s attention. The more people realise it’s not equal, that there are a lot of issues in women’s sport and around equality, the better. Things are moving in the right direction, albeit too slowly for my liking!”
Brown is talking to Rugby World shortly after the Connacht women’s team had to change outside next to rubbish bins ahead of a televised interprovincial match in Dublin. Yes, Covid has created challenging situations but it’s hard to imagine a top men’s team being presented with such a grim, unsuitable changing area (it’s too much of a stretch to call them facilities).
Plenty of organisations, be they clubs, unions or governing bodies, like to talk up their women’s programmes – not just in rugby but all sports – yet too often the words are not backed up by deeds; if progress is truly to be made more investment is required.
“It doesn’t surprise me,” says Brown matter-of-factly of the situation Connacht experienced. “I’ve played England Internationals where we’ve not had hot water for showers or had the ‘lesser’ changing rooms that are too small. Women just get on with it; we just want to play rugby and we want to make a difference. Sometimes there are sacrifices, but for me I keep at it because of other people, because of the messages I get from parents and kids.”
It’s that desire to get more people involved in sport that has seen her start a girls’ team at Gillingham Anchorians, get involved with Canterbury Hellfire Wheelchair Rugby Club, run sessions for the Girls Rugby Club and more. Rickards says: “Her ambition is to get people into sport and rugby whatever background they are from. If she helps people that’s something I’m really proud of her for.
“She’s not afraid to speak her mind. I sometimes think, ‘Don’t say that’, because social media brings people down as quickly as it puts people up, but she can take it. Shaunagh thinks she’s got the right platform now to say things and help people.”
For all her forthrightness, Brown laughs when it’s suggested she’s an activist. “I don’t see myself as an activist, I think of protests and holding signs when I hear that. I just see myself as honest, but respectfully honest.”
“In a game I want to be everywhere”
On top of all that Brown is doing in promoting the game and raising awareness of social issues, she also has pretty hefty sporting goals of her own. It’s only six years since she took up rugby but she was capped by England within two and, following a positional switch from back-row to prop, is now a regular in the Red Roses set-up.
Ask how much she has developed since her 2017 Test debut against Canada and she laughs about understanding the laws now. It’s that knowledge that allows her to act quicker on the pitch rather than have to think things through because they were all so new. As for the move to the front row, she says there are two advantages.
“First, everyone needs a prop and there aren’t enough people playing there so you can play as long as you want – look at the example of Rocky Clark! Also, and especially in pre-season, in running drills or outright running, the distance is a lot less for props.
“In a game I want to be everywhere. If I don’t get 20-plus carries I’m annoyed and I also enjoy the one-on-one battle of the scrum. But less running in training is the main positive!”
This is a big 12 months for Brown and women’s rugby as a whole. At Harlequins, there’s the goal of winning back-to-back Allianz Premier 15s titles – she was Player of the Match in the 2021 final. With England, everything is building up to the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand.
She says: “Obviously I’m doing a lot of off-pitch stuff and hope to get other people into the game, but my personal goal is playing in a World Cup final.”
As we said at the start, there are plenty more chapters to write in the Shaunagh Brown story. Best keep that right leg on standby for a few pages.
This article originally appeared in Rugby World’s November 2021 edition.
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