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FEATURE Ellie Kildunne: 'I want to inspire in every room that I walk into'

Ellie Kildunne: 'I want to inspire in every room that I walk into'
1 month ago

A frisson of excitement coursed through the women’s game when it was announced that Ellie Kildunne, the jet-heeled full-back named Player of the Championship in the recent Six Nations, would be strutting her stuff on the Olympics stage, adding her own joie de vivre to events in Paris.

Kildunne was part of the squad which secured qualification for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, but fate took a turn which has led her to where she is today – viewed as one of, if not the, best player on the planet.

When the entire sevens team were made redundant, Kildunne was bereft, but tears of sadness were soon replaced by joy when she was offered one of the first landmark women’s contracts for the 15-a-side game by the RFU.

While those deals have helped propel England to the forefront of the women’s game globally, the decision to accept one proved a double-edged sword for Kildunne given the circumstances.

Ellie Kildunne
Kildunne (second left) starred for England in the Six Nations but is now reverting to sevens (Photo Bob Bradford – CameraSport via Getty Images)

“That was probably one of the biggest heartbreaks I’ve had. It was the most difficult decision I’ve ever had to make,” she told RugbyPass.

“It was at a time when we all got made redundant with the sevens group and Covid had just hit. I always said I wanted to be the best player in the world but at the time I was looking at bar jobs and nannying jobs and working out whether I needed to go back into halls at uni. I was then given an opportunity to take a full-time 15s contract, with the only clause in it being that I couldn’t go to the Olympics.

“I’d just spent the last two years within the sevens group and was injured for pretty much the whole time that I was there, so it had been a really tough journey but the connections I made meant they weren’t just my team-mates, they were my best friends.

“I felt like I was letting everyone down, but also letting myself down as well because it’s something [going to an Olympic Games] that I’ve always wanted to do.”

I’m really grateful for the sevens group letting me in, but also the 15s group letting me step away and do something I really believe in.

The opportunity to rejoin the sevens programme ahead of the HSBC SVNS Grand Final in Madrid and the Paris 2024 Olympics this summer has given Kildunne another roll of the dice in chasing her Olympic dream.

“I never wanted to get to the end of my career and say ‘that’s it now, I’ll never try for it [Olympics] again’. What’s coming up and the opportunity to step back into the sevens arena gives me that chance to fulfil my dreams, but to say at least I tried.

“I’m really grateful for the sevens group letting me in, but also the 15s group letting me step away and do something I really believe in.”

Kildunne’s numbers from the recent Six Nations alone speak for her talent. She was the top try-scorer with nine, top points scorer (45), topped the most metres gained (676.1), most metres carried (869.3) and most line breaks (13), as well as picking up three Player of the Match awards. That was rounded off by being awarded Player of the Championship, but even that accolade doesn’t paint the full picture of her campaign.

Ellie Kildunne
Full-back Kildunne scored a hat-trick against Ireland and two tries against Italy, Wales and Scotland (Photo Alex Broadway/Getty Images)

The smile on her face speaks volumes. Kildunne credits this for not only contributing to her ever-expanding love of rugby, but perhaps more importantly, allowing her to find her feet as a person, not just as a player.

A passionate photographer, the 24-year-old is often seen with a camera in hand when she’s not playing and also likes to express herself through fashion.

“I’ve been on a bit of a journey where it’s accepting how I express myself, whether that’s through fashion, photography, or through finding my smile on the pitch,” she says, sat wearing a red and white checked shirt.

“I’m the happiest I’ve been. The campaign that we’ve just done in the Six Nations has been the most enjoyable campaign I’ve ever done in an England shirt.

It is really important to find what your thing is… Whatever it is, I think if you’re going to do something, just do it, and do it with a smile on your face and find new ways to love it even more.

“It’s so infectious, that energy you feel when you’re playing and training. You look forward to being around the girls. When the tournament finished, I didn’t want it to end. I wanted to play another game because I was just enjoying it so much.

“When people ask me, ‘What do you do when you lose the love for the sport?’, I wouldn’t really know the answer because I’ve never lost the love for rugby. If anything, I’ve fallen in love with it even more.”

Kildunne’s zest for life, on and off the rugby pitch, is infectious and something she believes everyone should try to find.

“It is really important to find what your thing is. It might not be photography. It might not be smiling on the pitch, or the way you dress, but it might be singing, or podcasts. Whatever it is, I think if you’re going to do something, just do it, and do it with a smile on your face and find new ways to love it even more.”

Allowing players to wholeheartedly embrace their true selves away from the game and show their true personalities is something Kildunne advocates.

Ellie Kildunne
Kildunne and Jess Breach showed off some dance moves after England’s Grand Slam triumph against France in Bordeaux (Photo David Rogers/Getty Images)

“I bang on about storytelling and the emotional side of rugby all the time – as people, not just as players. We’re more that,” she enthused.

“I want to inspire in every room that I walk into, whether you like rugby or not. I never want to be Ellie Kildunne the rugby player because rugby isn’t going to last forever.

“It’s important that I come across as myself, not as just a rugby player, because you’ll see that when you watch rugby, but you’re not going to have a conversation with Ellie the rugby player in the street or if we go for coffee, you’re going to be talking to me. It’s my personality. It keeps people grounded as well.”

Kildunne has unashamedly expressed a desire to be the best player in the world, male or female. Even in the relatively nascent stage of her burgeoning career, many of rugby’s cognoscenti would already argue she is well on the way to securing that accolade.

You look at the girls in the GB group and they’re massively talented. Super-fast, all of them. I’m excited for the challenges and to try and make that squad is not going to be easy.

Returning from 15s to sevens is a challenge which may contribute to her reaching such rarefied heights, and she is looking forward to sharing the knowledge she’s acquired from being part of the Red Roses squad.

“I haven’t played sevens in quite a while now, so there’s bags of knowledge that they’ve got that I’m going to learn from.

“Each individual has a different strength and I’m really looking forward to taking stuff from those people. Playing against them, training against them is going to keep on adding strings to my bow. For myself and Meg [Jones] going into the sevens group, we don’t have a lot of time before Madrid.

“I’m sure we’ll learn from them as much as they’ll learn from us and our individual skills, but also from the 15s game to the sevens. You look at the girls in the GB group and they’re massively talented. Super-fast, all of them. I’m excited for the challenges and to try and make that squad is not going to be easy. I’m also looking forward to being part of a new group, to push other people and make new friendships.”

Rhona Lloyd
Kildunne will shortly join the likes of Scotland wing Rhona Lloyd with Great Britain Sevens for the HSBC SVNS Grand Final in Madrid (Photo Will Russell/Getty Images)

Across the women’s game, many countries have players are turning their hand to both the sevens and 15s disciplines.

The recent Six Nations saw many of Kildunne’s Great Britain Sevens team-mates representing their countries at 15s, with the likes of Scotland duo Rhona Lloyd and Lisa Thomson and Wales’ Jasmine Joyce featuring at points in the competition.

Since the introduction of professional contracts in 15s, this crossover has been far less common for English athletes, but Kildunne strongly believes players should be able to show their talent in both formats.

“I’ve always been a massive advocate that we should be able to play both sevens and 15s,” she insisted.

“For certain positions, it certainly benefits. For instance, I’m a full-back, I do a lot of running, the fitness might be slightly different but I’ve got to stay composed in both scenarios. I won’t do any less running being a 15s player because I do loads anyway.

“In countries who have done it before, England and GB for example, it shows the depth of women’s rugby. If you can pull people out and bring them into different squads, it’s a one-team mentality and each can benefit from having different eyes on the game, different players in the game who see it slightly differently.

I honestly scream to people that you should go to a sevens tournament. If you’re not into rugby, go to some of the sevens. It could be social, it could be an opportunity to dance with your friends, it could be an opportunity to watch the rugby.

“You look at the likes of France and New Zealand that have done it moreso and they’ve been really successful with it. I’m grateful that we’re going to have the opportunity to show England and GB that we can do the same as well. Hopefully, going forward, it becomes the story for more people. Then you can do sevens and 15s and just enjoy rugby as much as you can do and learn from different experiences when they come up.”

The Olympics schedule means that sevens sits in a golden window of opportunity to grow the sport. It is one of the few sports to kick off before the opening ceremony on 26 July – the first two days of the men’s event are on 24 and 25 July, with the women’s taking centre stage from Sunday, 28 July.

This ‘coming of age’ Olympics and the SVNS Series are springboards from which Kildunne hopes the game of rugby can continue to grow.

“I honestly scream to people that you should go to a sevens tournament. If you’re not into rugby, go to some of the sevens,” she stresses.

“It could be social, it could be an opportunity to dance with your friends, it could be an opportunity to watch the rugby.

“Being involved in the sevens series when I was quite a bit younger gave me insight into that. You only have to watch a game for 14 minutes. It’s not long! That’s like four songs, and then it’s over, it’s so quick,” she adds with a laugh.

Ellie Kildunne
Kildunne will miss the end of the domestic season with Harlequins but is confident they will “grow” in her absence (Photo Bob Bradford – CameraSport via Getty Images)

“I’ve got plenty of friends in the creative world and one of them actually came to the England v Ireland game and took some shots. It was the first women’s rugby game that she’s done and she absolutely loved it.”

Since the end of the Six Nations, Kildunne has been training independently ahead of joining up with the Great Britain squad.

“For the past two weeks now I’ve been doing sevens training. Quite a large majority of the training you do is at home, and then you go into camp.

“I’m really excited for the opportunity to play in Madrid. It will be amazing. It isn’t an easy pool but I’m looking forward to the challenges that we’re going to come up against, but also, to find solutions quickly and to be back on the sevens field with the girls.”

As Kildunne embarks on a summer of chasing her Olympics sevens dream, she will temporarily put 15s to one side.

Her giddy success with England has contrasted with a difficult season on the domestic front. Harlequins have only four wins from 14 matches in Premiership Women’s Rugby, sitting sixth out of nine heading into the final few weeks before the play-offs.

“It’s not been the smoothest of seasons with Quins, but I’m not leaving them in a space that I don’t think they’ll grow,” she added. “I don’t think the team depends on me at all.

“I’m really proud of the girls and the journey they’re on. We’re learning so much from each other. Losing isn’t easy, losing week in, week out isn’t any easier. You never get used to it.

“In my absence they’re only going to grow so I’m looking forward to how high they can raise the bar so when I get back I can fight to get my shirt back.”

Comments

3 Comments
g
guy 31 days ago

Ellie is s good player in the womens game, but can we please, please, please stop this hyperbolic nonsense that she is the best player in the game, male or female?

We’re living in the era of Dupont, who might end up being the best player in history, so lets just retain a sense of perspective shall we? 🙄

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