Shaunagh Brown and Ugo Monye discuss how women's rugby can move to the next level

Credit: Eddie Mulholland

Pulling their best smiles for the camera and quivering with giggles, Shaunagh Brown and Ugo Monye are standing back to back in a suite at Twickenham Stoop. Monye, the former England winger-turned-rugby pundit, is in a jovial mood and, after a minute of camera clicks, he cannot hold back any longer. Knowing he will send the England and Harlequins prop into a roar of laughter, he states the obvious. “Our bums are… touching,” he says, as the pair erupt into a fit of hysterics.

Given the infectious banter between the pair, it is hard to believe they only crossed paths last summer, when they were involved with the Rugby Football Union’s Rugby Against Racism campaign. Their roles as prominent spokespeople for racial equality in their sport – not to mention their proud link to Harlequins and shared passion for the women’s game – have helped to spark the kind of friendship rarely shared between current women’s rugby players and former professionals in the men’s game.

Monye’s relationship with the women’s game stretches back a number of years, having commentated on the 2017 World Cup final that England lost to New Zealand in Belfast. A self-confessed “girl dad” with two young daughters, he is part of a growing tribe of former male players, along with the likes of Brian O’Driscoll and former England winger Topsy Ojo, publicly drumming up support for the female game and its ever-growing profile.

“You scratch the surface of women’s rugby and it’s not always as it should be,” says Monye. “I want us to be relentless in trying to turn the dial of where the women’s game should be, but I certainly don’t want to lay claim to men and male allies being the No 1 thing that will take the women’s game to the next level. People like Shaunagh are doing that by themselves, by playing well, being good role models on and off the pitch. They’ve set the foundation, I’m just trying to amplify that.”

Shaunagh Brown celebrates with her Harlequins team-mates after winning the Premier 15s title

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Brown agrees, having experienced first-hand the supporting act that Monye has assumed during her highly successful season with Harlequins, in which the prop was crowned a Premier 15s and Grand Slam champion with England. It was after a bruising encounter against France last autumn when the 31-year-old, unconvinced by her own performance in a 25-23 win at Twickenham that was granted a rare slot on free-to-air TV, that she rang Monye for advice. Familiar with such high-pressured environments, the former British and Irish Lion helped to dissect every element of her game.

Such phone exchanges before and after big encounters have become a defining feature of their friendship. “He probably wouldn’t see himself as a mentor, because he’s not that much older than me, but I would see him as that,” admits Brown. She touches on the hilarity of listening to an 11.30pm WhatsApp voice note that Monye sent her on the eve of the Premier 15s final. “At first I thought it was an emergency! The message I got out of it was: ‘Just carry the ball more, stop passing.’ It was literally that sentence, but it took him three quarters of an hour to get to the point.” Monye cuts in, defending his overeagerness: “I was just thinking about the game and I just knew what it would mean for Quins.”

His 11th-hour advice worked. Brown delivered arguably the strongest performance of her club career and was named player-of-the-match as Harlequins sealed their first Premier 15s title, before backing up her impressive display with a rousing post-match monologue.

With sweat and tears glistening on her face under the hot May sunshine, she used the rare moment in front of the BT Sport cameras to demand that the women’s game deserved respect. Sitting in the TV studio, Monye choked up.

Try watching this and not being moved…

Here's what it means to @HarlequinsWomen's @ShaunaghBrown.#Premier15s #Premier15sFinal 🏆

— Allianz Premier 15s (@Premier15s) May 30, 2021

“I say she’d probably encapsulated how a lot of women felt about the sport. She was speaking on behalf of every female rugby player and women’s sport in general.”

Brown agrees the women’s game can benefit from male kinship, but urges those familiar with the professional men’s game to consider the amateur context of its female equivalent when offering constructive criticism. “We don’t want to be mollycoddled. We don’t want people going, ‘Ah, at least the women are having a go, bless them. But when you are critiquing the game, bear in mind that as a woman, if you’re not an England player, you probably have a full-time job. You’ve been to work nine until five and gone straight to training.”

The pair are also united in their frustrations at how the anti-racist gesture of taking the knee has been blurred into a political statement by some of the world’s biggest sporting governing bodies. Brown recalls her disappointment at sifting through the report published last April by the International Olympic Committee, which has banned athletes from taking the knee at this summer’s delayed Tokyo Games. “What are they scared of with people taking the knee? How does it negatively affect them?”

Monye weighs in: “It’s just not a big enough priority of theirs right now. The same people who are saying keep politics out of sport are the same people who leaned upon Boris Johnson to keep the best six clubs leaving the Premier League to join the European Super League. So is it keep politics out of sport, but just with the topics we’re not comfortable with?”

It is one of the very reasons Monye is now chairing a new advisory group which will act as an independent body to check and challenge the RFU on its progress with diversity and inclusion. Ensuring at least 15 per cent of all club boards are from ethnically diverse communities by 2022 is just one of the aims which has already piqued Brown’s interest.

“Right now, sitting here, I couldn’t tell you how you get into a boardroom,” says Brown, who in her previous life as a hammer thrower was surrounded by women and girls of colour at Blackheath and Bromley Harriers, the childhood club of Dina Asher-Smith. “I’ve heard different stories of how to be recommended by an old bloke you’ve never met before and you think, ‘What, surely not in 2021?’ I don’t know those systems, but it’s about making those systems transparent.”

Ugo Monye commentating on the Women's Six Nations for BBC this season

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Monye nods in agreement with Brown’s pragmatism, before explaining how mentoring and identifying future leaders of the game from underrepresented communities for decision-making roles is one of his priorities as a retired player. “Ugo is very good at that,” adds Brown. “He’s not afraid to say, ‘Oh, no one else wants to commentate on the women’s game, I’ll do it, it’s great.’ It’s good, but it’s only because no one else can. We need to acknowledge that. We need to be at those tables to ask those questions, and then eventually be at the top of the tables making the changes.”

Her words elicit a simple response from Monye. “Shaunagh for RFU president,” he smirks. “Why not?” If Brown continues on her trajectory against the backdrop of change spearheaded by Monye, that could one day be a real possibility.