The new Tyrrells Premier 15s campaign is underway and this weekend sees one of the most eagerly anticipated matches of the season as Harlequins Ladies welcome Saracens Women to The Stoop.
A repeat of last year’s inaugural final – won 24-20 by Saracens in a thrilling encounter – it’s the first time the teams have met this season in the Premier 15s which showcases the elite of England women’s club rugby.
Ahead of this Saturday’s showdown we caught up with Jack Fallon, member of the Harlequins communications team, who gave us a fascinating insight into the life of Harlequins back-row and firefighter Shaunagh Brown (main picture – photo courtesy of Getty Images for Harlequins) following her meteoric rise from novice to international rugby player having only taken up the game in 2015.
In an age obsessed with team-no-sleep hashtags and Mark Wahlberg’s daily routine, you are invited to delve into the life of Shaunagh Brown. Full-time firefighter. England and Harlequins Ladies back-row. Commonwealth Games bronze medallist. The Highland Games. Plus a brief stint in boxing. This proves just a glimpse into the CV of the energetic lover of life that is Shaunagh Brown.
The subtle aroma of coffee grains. A crisp nip in the air. The sudden rush of panic partnered with a brisk race against the clock towards the platform. Characteristics that all equate to a normal Tuesday morning for the common population. For Shaunagh, however, it is quite the contrary. A cheerful and chirpy voice answers the phone, joking about just finishing her night shift at the fire service while being in the middle of a gym workout during our previous exchange the day before.
Juggling commitments seems a theme all too regular in the life of the 28-year-old from South London, but a theme she relishes and undoubtedly thrives upon. Growing up as the only girl among six cousins, Shaunagh soon learned how to fend for herself, showing no restraint in getting stuck in with the boys by playing sports and exploring the outdoors.
“The first sport I was interested in was football in the playground and I was always the only girl playing it. I could never find a team with enough girls in it to actually play, and so I started athletics when I was 12.”
It was at this tender stage in Shaunagh’s upbringing where she developed her first true passion for sport and set her sights on representing her country on the world stage — winning a bronze medal in discus at the Commonwealth Youth Games held in India in 2008 and competing in the hammer throw for Great Britain at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games six years later.
“I always wanted to go to the Olympics,” she reflected. “My goal back in 2010 was to go to the Commonwealth Games in 2014 and then hopefully progress onto the Olympic Games in 2016. I made it to the Commonwealth Games, but after that I fell out of love with it and I wasn’t progressing how I would have liked.”
Searching for her next sporting endeavour, she nonchalantly listed off competing in the Highland Games and a few strongwoman competitions alongside her work as a commercial diver as if it’s something the average person resorts to when passing the time on a relaxing and lackadaisical Sunday afternoon. All of this prior to her first boxing match, an exciting experience but one she ultimately deemed not suited for her.
“It was intense. I stopped athletics because I wanted to chill out for a bit and live life like a so-called normal person and not train every day. Going into boxing was the complete opposite. I’d be training twice a day, six days a week.”
Remarkably, this only begins to scratch the surface of Shaunagh’s love affair with sport and motivation to pursue
every interest and passion she may hold. It wasn’t until she was 25 years of age before she properly got involved with rugby. Two years later, she’s lining out for the Red Roses on international duty, having been granted some rare time off from her full-time role at the Kent fire service. Not bad you might say.
“I didn’t know much about rugby. I was never really allowed to try it in case I got an injury. If I hurt my hand I wouldn’t be able to throw and at high level athletics it wasn’t worth it.”
Once the opportunity arose, Shaunagh’s outlook was no different to trying her hand at rugby as it was participating in such a wide array of sports prior to this. However the rise from playing her first 15s rugby match in December 2015 to receiving her second cap for England in the Six Nations against Ireland in March 2018, is made all the more impressive when it’s considered that she also works 42 hours per week as a firefighter.
Firefighter by day, rugby player by night. That is the heroic lifestyle she currently boasts.
A true role model and beacon of inspiration for young girls in particular to dare to pursue whatever they may wish to achieve or become within their own lives. The balance between the two proves a challenge but one that suits Shaunagh perfectly.
“It’s quite flexible in the terms of you choose your own shifts which makes it easier for me to try and get Tuesday and Thursday evenings off for club training and Saturdays for a game.”
In recent weeks Paul Gustard — head coach of the Harlequins men’s side — invited army troops to the Surrey Sports Park to relate their roles and responsibilities to that of the duties distributed across the rugby pitch on a given match day. Similarly, Shaunagh related the sense of leadership, teamwork and discipline required on the job as a firefighter to how the Harlequins Ladies side work on the pitch for one another.
“The main similarity between the two is the need to work as a team,” she stated. “If you’re on your way to a job you organise who’s going to do what, anticipating it for when you get there. That’s the same on the pitch. We’ve all got our own roles.”
One of the main issues continuously lingering around the world of rugby, however, is the lack of female involvement within the sport.
“When I first went to my local club, the first thing you notice is the number of people at training. You see the men training on one pitch and they’ve got two or three teams worth of guys, and then on the women’s team it’d be good if we had 10 or 12 at a training session.”
As she expressed her thoughts, the passion and thrill for competition was evident in her voice, but also a determined willingness to encourage young girls to get involved and try something they may never have done before. When asked for her advice to females who may experience a reluctance to participate in a sport still currently suffering from such heavy male domination, she responded:
“I’d just say, why not? Sometimes we’re our own worst enemies because not enough women do it so less people think it’s normal. A lot of people just do it for the social side and you can make friends for life. Just give it a try.”
Perhaps the most monumental step within the women’s game so far has just been taken. The RFU announced that they will grant professional contracts to the England 15s for the first time. This acts as a tremendous turn in the right direction for Shaunagh as she highlighted the significance of young girls being able to grow up and think that they can become professional rugby players.
On a personal basis, this announcement could yet throw up a greater debate for Shaunagh’s future. For the time being, however, she remains focused on her own game and believes she will sit down and think about what is best for her should a professional contract be put on the table for her.
“It’d be a decision to make. Once I get told either way whether I’ve been offered one or not, that would be the moment to sit down and think about what I want from rugby and my career. The fire service isn’t something I’d give up easily and isn’t something I’d want to give up. It’d be a decision to make.”
Regardless of the money which could come Shaunagh’s way and potentially allow her to focus on her game full-time, she remains focused on her primary goal following the announcement of her most recent call up to the England squad this week: “Contract or no contract, my goal is to play for England at the World Cup in 2021. I want to play in a World Cup Final.”
You’d be crazy to doubt her.
Harlequins Ladies v Saracens Women is a 3pm kick-off on Saturday 20th October at The Stoop in Twickenham. Tickets are available via the Harlequins website along with all the latest news on the team. We’ll be live reporting from the match this weekend and covering the 2018/2019 Tyrrells Premier 15s season through to its conclusion in April 2019. Be sure to follow the @sportonspecLDN social media channels for regular updates and ticket news.