'I literally just turned to my Mum and said 'I could do that. I could rock on that pitch right now!'
Shaunagh Brown looked at me strangely when I said she reminded me of Mr Benn, the book and cartoon character that used to occupy a different job every day. “Like Nessa from Gavin and Stacey,” I say, which was a more familiar comparison to the 31-year-old. Like Mr Ben or Nessa, Brown has had so many jobs in the past that she is never far away from a good story.
A commercial diver, British Gas engineer, firefighter, Commonwealth Games hammer thrower and professional rugby player – Brown has done it all. It’s clear to see how, she is a bundle of energy and exudes positivity. Brown became a women’s rugby player with such determination that she felt confident enough to tell her mum she was going to be a Red Roses player when watching them live for the first time. “I know if an idea is in my head then it’s just me pushing myself, but if I tell my mum then I have to do it,” she laughs.
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On 12 March 2016, after playing rugby for a year, Shaunagh went to watch England v Wales at Twickenham Stoop in the Women’s Six Nations. “I literally just turned to my Mum and said ‘I could do that. I could rock on that pitch right now!’ That was sort of the start of the journey. That’s when my mindset changed.
Within weeks, she contacted Harlequins Women and arranged to visit a training session and join in. “After a couple of weeks, they realised I was still turning up, and they were like ‘alright then’. They definitely liked my determination to play.”
While Brown has had an elusive and interesting career, she is set with professional rugby now, although she says she always likes to be building towards something else. That new goal is likely to be in rugby, she says, as she has found her feet in the England squad.
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There is lots to build on at the moment, with the new WXV tournament announced last week. The global competition will take place once a year in the autumn, following the regional tournaments like the Women’s Six Nations that take place before June each year. It’s highly likely that England will be in Tier 1 of this new tournament, the highest level of three. That high level of elite, regular rugby is a draw for players who otherwise might only play international rugby against regional counterparts at the Women’s Six Nations or have to wait for the Rugby World Cup.
There’s also the feasibility study into the women’s Lions programme, which could add another accolade to Brown’s already extensive collection. I get the sense from Brown that she likes to defy expectation and be what others can’t – her career path is far from the ordinary. To be in the first women’s Lions team would certainly continue her desire to be the best at everything she does.
Brown’s optimism in women’s rugby gives me hope, because the last week has made it difficult to be a women’s rugby fan. The Women’s Six Nations starts on 3 April, and the handy countdown timer on the Six Nations website tells me that we are 11 days, three hours, three minutes and one second away from the start of the tournament. How do they know? They haven’t even released the kick-off times yet.
Such is the joy of following women’s rugby that we are so close to the tournament, yet we still don’t know the kick-off times, venues, squads, or if the games will be broadcast. There were unconfirmed rumours that the BBC had the rights to all the Women’s Six Nations games in the previous window, but it is unclear if the new window will have a similar broadcast deal. Brown says the new window is a “good experiment” for the women’s tournament, and I agree. The last few weeks could have been a great time to really push the women’s game and get fans watching. Last weekend was round 15 of the Premier 15s, which included the huge Saracens Women v Exeter Chiefs clash, a game that had 125,000 streams last time the teams played. It would have been brilliant to be able to advertise the tournament during that game, and the other live streams available.
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There is some concern that the tournament won’t go ahead, as this is a familiar position for women’s rugby fans – one we know all too well since the last time this tournament was postponed. How can any fan plan their weekends without knowing when the rugby will be on? Even more so in women’s rugby, where kick-off times often overlap and games aren’t on television. It’s often a mission to find enough screens to watch all the games you want to; last weekend I needed four screens to watch all the women’s rugby live streams.
It’s been said time and time again that this new window provides opportunity for the women’s game. As a women’s rugby journalist, I feel like I’m pointing people to an empty room. Where is this fantastic tournament I have promised? It’s time for Six Nations Rugby to announce the dates and broadcast details so that fans can watch the tournament.
Maybe Six Nations Rugby has been side-tracked by the CVC deal – a “long-term strategic partnership” that promises extra money to the game, but how much the women’s game gets is unconfirmed.
Six Nations told women’s rugby website Scrumqueens: “The objective of the partnership is to invest to grow and develop the game; to further enhance the sporting spectacle of all the tournaments, the teams and the brands and that will have a huge positive impact on the Women’s Championship… CVC recognises the huge potential Six Nations Rugby has and is aligned with our vision, an important part of which is growing the women’s game. Their impressive track record in investment in sport and long-term value generation supports the six unions’ strategic priorities, one of which is accelerating growth in the women’s game.
“Elevating the women’s game will be one of the biggest levers available to us in growing a more diverse global fanbase, which is another of our key strategic priorities.”
How much of that money goes to the women’s game is dependent on each union and how much they want to invest. According to Scrumqueens, England and Ireland have been direct in their commitment to fund the women’s game, Wales have failed to confirm any guaranteed investment in their women’s programme, and Scotland said the women’s game would “invariably” benefit from the investment. Italy did not mention the women’s game and France has not yet responded.
No investment will have instant results and it will likely take time for the likes of CVC and others who invest in women’s rugby to see the return. But, optimism like Brown’s is a reminder of how far we have come and the investment, determination, and sacrifice it has taken to get here. Young girls and women can aspire to play regular international rugby, and maybe soon a British and Irish Lion.
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