If the ball had rolled a little differently during England’s heartbreaking Women’s Rugby World Cup final defeat by New Zealand in November, Shaunagh Brown might now be pumping iron ready for a fresh Six Nations campaign. Instead, on a bracing morning in a food bank in Lewisham, the 33-year-old is packing tins into bags while powerfully putting the world to rights.
“So often I am so ashamed to be British when I hear what our leaders are saying out loud,” says the former prop, who is even more determined to speak out about social issues now that her distinguished career, which included four Women’s Six Nations championships, has ended. “We’re the sixth-richest country in the world. And yet we have some MPs saying that people can feed themselves for 33p a day. No. It’s not OK to just exist. It’s not OK to have so many people relying on food banks.”
She is here as an ambassador for the charity Wooden Spoon, whose Pass the Plate campaign is raising funds for food banks in 25 regions across the UK and Ireland. But for Brown this is deeply personal too. “I come from a single-parent family; mum and her three kids growing up in council housing,” she says. “I remember going to the post office to pick up her benefits. Sometimes they would give it to me. Sometimes they wouldn’t. And if my mum couldn’t get home from work in time before the post office closed, we’d go without until the next day. So these are my people.”
Brown shakes her head as she takes aim at the tabloids and politicians who demonise the poor, as well as the richest in society who show little concern for those lower down the food chain. Her message to them is simple. “Be nice. Be compassionate. And realise that you are gifted with not just a silver spoon but a diamond in your mouth. It’s not a fair race.”
Inevitably, as we talk, the clock winds back four months to England’s World Cup final defeat by New Zealand. It was surely the greatest final in the history of the women’s game, with the Red Roses fighting back after having Lydia Thompson sent off only for Ayesha Leti-I’iga’s late try to take the Black Ferns to a 34-31 victory.
“It was a proper sliding doors moment,” says Brown. “If we had won we would have been national heroes, having played for 65 minutes with 14 players. It would have been the greatest win in rugby history. But we were four points short. The door closed.”
As Brown notes, while people and politicians still hail the Euro 2022 success of the footballers, the Red Roses’ efforts barely get a mention. Does the loss still sting? “Of course,” she says. “I’ve lost count of the times I thought: ‘What would I be doing on this day if we’d won that World Cup?’ I’d have been to Buckingham Palace and probably met the king. But I’m not. I’m just sitting at home playing Nintendo.”
Brown is laughing as she talks: the reality is that she has been working six days a week coaching rugby in the Cayman Islands. She is especially enjoying getting so many black, mixed-race and Asian kids into the sport for the first time. “When they first saw a mixed-race woman from south London they were confused because they’re used to being coached by a white, male middle-aged American coach,” she says. “But just by being in their presence, I am changing their perceptions of rugby.”
But will there be any pangs of regret when England kick off their Women’s Six Nations campaign against Scotland next Saturday? “At this stage I’m still good with my decision,” she says. “A few people messaged me when the training squad came out to say: ‘It’s weird not to see your name on the list, how do you feel about it?’”
She starts to smile. “I replied about five hours later. I was like: ‘I’m sorry. I’ve been busy. I’ve been at the beach all day. I’ve been paddleboarding. I’ve just stopped to put some aftersun on.’ But when England play France in the decider at Twickenham in a few weeks’ time it will kick in.”
Asked for a Six Nations prediction, she has no doubt: England. “But it’s a very different squad because of retirements, pregnancy and injury,” she says. “Our star fly-half, Zoe Harrison, has had ACL surgery and is out for the season. Our vice-captain, Emily Scarratt, is also injured. And there’s nine uncapped players too. So it will be different, but I am sure Simon Middleton is going to get the team to play in the same way.”
For now, at least, Brown can’t see any other country challenging the big two globally. “No. You reap what you sow, and if you don’t invest in your women, you don’t get better players. We all see what England have done. Eventually New Zealand Rugby got the memo too. And France are doing OK. But most of the girls at the World Cup were on annual leave from their day jobs. That’s the reality.”
It will, she admits, take a while for the women’s game to become fully professional. But Brown says that must be the goal if the sport wants to attract a more diverse playing base. “One of the problems we have is that rugby in this country is subsidised by parents, grandparents and people from certain backgrounds: in my world it’s seen as a posh sport for posh white boys,” she says. “And if there is no way to make ends meet for those who are not so well off, they won’t even consider playing the game.
“A fully professional women’s game is still a way off. But if every player in the Premier 15s can earn enough to make a profit, even if it is just five grand a year on top of expenses and accommodation, it would make a difference.”
We end with Brown passionately setting out her manifesto to get more women and girls into sport. It includes schools being compelled to put on more PE lessons rather than cutting them, and rugby trying far harder to go deeper into every community it serves. There are some clubs, she says, that don’t allow breastfeeding in their clubhouses. Others that do little to reach out to children beyond private schools.
“The future must be to empower women to do just as much, if not more, than men,” she says. “Sometimes it might be hard. But everything in life that’s worth doing is hard.”