At 25 years old, while watching England’s Women play in the Six Nations, Shaunagh Brown set her heart on yet another career change. “I looked at my mum and I said to her ‘I could do this. I'm going to play rugby for England one day,’” she explains.
She’d never really seen rugby before, but as a former boxer, hammer thrower, shot putter, commercial diver, British Gas engineer and firefighter - all by the age of 25, Shaunagh had made a habit of setting her heart on something and making it happen.
“She just went ‘okay’,” she tells The Sportsman of her mother’s reaction. “My mum is very used to me saying things and just going off and doing them no matter what they are. Nothing surprises her anymore. If I want to go and do something I will go out and do it.”
Her pathway from rugby novice to England international prop forward, which took her only two years, has not been without its challenges. She first joined her local club Medway and then, thanks to a friend's recommendation, she went to train with Premiership side Aylesford Bulls (now Harlequins Women) in the summer of 2016.
“After that first training session a few coaches came over and said ‘have you ever played before?’ I said I had played a couple of games. They said, ‘Okay, we can tell that you don’t play but at the same time you don’t stand out as being useless and we can tell how strong you are with lifting and tackling. We’d love you to come back.’”
Having represented England at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in the hammer throw, and trained at the shotput and discus since the age of 11, strength, power and explosive speed all come naturally to Shaunagh. However, it was the technical side of the game that she struggled with, and still does to this day. “The hardest part was just understanding what was going on,” she explains.
“There is still a part of it now, I think ‘why don’t we just do that?’ Not as in ‘how dare you do that’ but I just think ‘why is it a five-player line out here’. We joke about it as a team, they can tell when I'm thinking cos I look like I'm in pain.
“They tell me ‘you don't need to worry about that, you just carry the ball into those five people!’ It is just that recognition that everyone is different and we need different types of people on the team. There is an element of difficulty, but my main difficulty was, and still is, understanding the tactics of the game as such, whereas the physicality for me was the easier bit because that is my foundation.”
Her knowledge of the game continued to develop until 2017, at which point - just two years after telling her mum she wanted to play for England, she made her debut against Canada. It was a rise of meteoric proportions but the international environment once again tested her resolve.
“I wouldn't say I was actively welcomed all the time,” she admits. “In the England environment there weren't many people who would want to stand up and help. I was still learning how to play rugby, but this is an international environment... this is not the place where you come and learn how to play rugby!
“One of my biggest helps was Rachel Burford. She put an arm around me straight away and, although we play in very different positions on the pitch, she was telling me how the system works, how rugby works, even what we are supposed to wear on a certain day.
“I am very much an elite sportswoman and when I go somewhere like that I am not going to make friends. I am going to learn and perform and be the best, which is what I've done. The friends thing was literally a bonus. I’d be surprised when people were nice to me!”
Despite her clear and immense talent at the sport, Shaunagh has no regrets about not giving it a go sooner. “If I was playing earlier I wouldn’t have been able to box, dive, or have the experiences I have had,” she says of her multitude of previous achievements. “Definitely not, I don't wish I was playing any earlier because it wouldn't make me the player I am now, it would change me very much.”
And while she had been a star in everything from boxing to the hammer throw, from diving to the Highland Games, in rugby union she has found the opportunity to be a role model too. As a mixed-race woman from south London, Brown certainly doesn’t fit the stereotypical mould of a rugby player, but it is something she revels in.
“If you can't see it, you can't be it,” she adds. “From the stereotype of female nurses and hairdressers, male firefighters, subconsciously and socially you just associate that role with that type of person. Therefore you don't associate it with you. It is getting people out there and realising that you can go out and achieve in different avenues, you don't have to follow a certain path.”
The 30-year-old has already encouraged a number of youngsters to take up the sport on her visits to schools, and now takes more time to consider her actions as somebody who children look up to.
“This world is not equal. My little nephew has dark skin, so when we talk about skin tone plasters, they are called skin tone but they aren't his skin tone. Why not have different colours? Darker coloured dolls? A barbie in a wheelchair? Why not have on TV someone in an adopted family rather than a neutral family, just exposing people to different situations. This world is not equal, it has a long way to go, it probably won't become equal until you acknowledge differences and celebrate them.
“More recently I have. I’ve been playing with my hair out, and talking about subjects I'm passionate about. At first I was just going with the flow and when people are saying ‘you are inspirational’ or ‘I’ve started playing rugby because of you’, that is when I have realised how powerful it can be. Now I will go above and beyond. I make an effort on social media, or I try to talk about certain subjects or to use certain types of music in my background. I will be very aware of what pictures I am taking and what is in the background, what I am wearing, who I am with.
“I've spoken at a school to 1000 kids and two or three of them have started playing rugby as a direct response to me being there.”
After countless careers, it is as a rugby player, but above all as a role model, that Shaunagh Brown has found her calling.
“No matter how many Grand Slams you win, how many Premiership finals you win, World Cup finals, having a direct influence on somebody else's life, someone you have never met before…that is the ultimate honour.”