England forward Shaunagh Brown believes increasing the amount of sport played in state schools holds the key to addressing the lack of diversity evident in elite level women’s teams.
Brown was present at Wembley last month to see the Lionesses’ victory over Germany in the final of Euro 2022 and was struck by the absence of any players from ethnic minority backgrounds in the starting line-up.
Former England defender Anita Asante reacted to the “whiteness” of the side by stating that “visibility matters” and Brown acknowledges that it is also a characteristic shared by the Red Roses.
The 32-year-old believes the solution to widening the appeal of sports like rugby and football amongst girls and women is to expand its availability in state education.
“Looking at the Lionesses team that played in the final, they’re all white. I definitely noticed straight away,” Umbro ambassador Brown told the PA news agency.
“I walk into a room and I’m generally the only mixed race female and sometimes the only person of colour full stop, so I notice it.
“It’s no player’s fault and it’s not the staffing or support system’s fault because they can only pick from a certain pool of talent.
“The problem – and it is a problem – is where the talent is coming from. What systems are in place at state schools to encourage people like me to play rugby at any age, like they do with boys at private schools?
“Where are rugby clubs going to get their talent? You need to invest into secondary state schools and that would open up a world to so many more people.
“In terms of diversity in the sport, it’s got a very, very long way to go, but that starts at a lot lower than at the elite level. It’s certainly something I notice.
“There’s so much positive still in the women’s game, but across the board there’s a long way to go.
“In this country only 13 per cent of people are ethnic minorities, so you have to be realistic about these things, but there’s no reason why we can’t over-encourage people who don’t normally play rugby or sport.”
Brown will be involved in England’s quest to win a third World Cup in New Zealand this autumn as they look to amplify the feelgood factor surrounding women’s sport generated by their footballing counterparts.
Even for a side viewed as firm favourites and armed with a stunning 23-Test winning run, attracting a comparable level of interest will be difficult given the different time zone.
But Brown insists England 2025 could be a transformative moment for women’s rugby – if the hosts deliver.
“When I was at Wembley I thought ‘we could do this as rugby’,” she said.
“The Rugby Football Union want to fill Twickenham for the final in 2025 and while that’s a very bold statement and there’s work to do, we know there is a mission to invest in women and women in rugby.”
Brown’s immediate target, however, is coping with the ongoing heatwave as England’s World Cup preparations continue.
“The sun has been a huge factor and we’ve been trying to mitigate that. It’s been very, very tough! We have ice towels and spend time in the shade, or train earlier,” she said.
* Shaunagh Brown is an ambassador for Umbro. For more information visit umbro.co.uk/rugby or follow @Umbro_Rugby on Instagram