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England's Abbie Brown - Accidental Trailblazer

Sometimes it’s the little things: The seemingly innocuous moments, when walking out of a service station washroom on a nondescript Friday evening, that one remembers the most.

On her way back to her car, England Sevens captain Abbie Brown, wearing street clothes at the end of a week of training, was stopped by a mom with young two daughters. The mother took the lead.

“Do you mind if we have a photo?”

“Of course.”

The eight-year-old stared at Brown in awe. “You play rugby for England.”

“Yeah, I do. Do you play?”

The little girl did. In fact, she played at a club not far from Brown’s home club – Cullompton RFC.

They took a picture with Brown.

It was about as far as you could get from the bright lights of Dubai or Cape Town or London’s O2 Arena, but Brown won’t soon forget this one quaint interaction. In a sense, it represented how far women’s rugby has come in England and around the world. And, at the same time, how far the women’s game has yet to go.

“I was so happy,” Brown recalls. “We always strive to grow the game and be those role models for little boys and little girls, so when something like that happens, it’s really special. You realize you really are inspiring people.

“I couldn’t stop smiling.”

The 5-foot-10 Brown is 23 years old. She’s been playing rugby for 17 years. But it was only a little over 10 years ago when she started playing on a girl’s side. For the first six years of her rugby-playing life, she played with the boys at Cullompton. Then, as a 12-year-old, she helped to create the club’s first-ever female side. Now, Cullompton has three age-grade teams for girls and a Ladies XVs team, and Brown is in the midst of targeting her second Olympiad as a fully professional rugby player.

Pause to take that in for just a second.

In a way, Brown is the pamphlet for women’s rugby in England and abroad. She’s old enough to have experienced both the early growing pains of the women’s game first-hand and, as a then 20-year-old, the first-ever installment of Rugby Sevens at the Rio Olympics in 2016. Yet, she’s very much still young enough to have a long career in front of her.

At six years old, Brown was watching her brother play rugby while her father coached the team. Standing beside her mother as a spectator, it didn’t take long for her to get bored on the sidelines.

“Well, can I play?”

Her mother was quick to encourage a young Abbie.

“Yeah, why not?”

She joined the club and for the first six years, she was the only girl on her team.

“I didn’t really care about that,” Brown says. “I was just happy to be there.”

Thus began a pretty impressive journey. Seventeen years on from that moment, Brown is a globetrotting rugby-playing superstar while her then rugby-playing brother, Jacob Brown, recently returned from a three-year term studying the behavioural habits of meerkats in a far-flung pocket of the Kalahari Desert. (Don’t you wish you could attend a Brown family gathering and just listen to all their stories?).

Four years ago, Brown and her British teammates finished fourth in Rio. England had come off a fourth-place finish in the World Series in 2015-16, which included a tournament title in Langford, B.C. However, since then, England has struggled to find consistency on the World Series stage. Brown’s side has yet to return to the top of podium, with a silver medal in Kitakyushu in 2018-19 marking England’s lone medal in the last quadrennial.

But with the Olympics on the horizon, a return to contention could be on the cusp.

With Brown always in the mix, the glimmers of potential are evident.

Sheesh. Just this past week, England had eventual tournament champion New Zealand on the ropes in the quarter-finals in Cape Town. Brown opened the scoring for England before her side went ahead 21-7 early in the second half. However, a heart-breaking comeback from the Black Ferns, capped by a game-winning overtime try, snuffed out England’s upset hopes. While disappointing, the English showing put all their dreams and all their possibilities very much on the table.

Add to that their success at the kind of random, but kind of cool RugbyX event in London this past October, which saw England win the five-on-five event, beating both USA (currently third in the World Series standings through three tournaments) and France (fifth), and there’s plenty of reason for optimism.

Yeah, why not?

When Brown was a youngster playing rugby with the boys, she didn’t dream of playing professionally or competing in the Olympics. It wasn’t a thing. Ever the sporting type – she was the one who showed up for her netball game with muddy knees, having come directly from the rugby pitch – she just wanted to play.

“The boys I played with were amazing, and they came from all kinds of backgrounds and it really helped me figure out who I am now and what my values are,” Brown says.

Cullompton RFC was the type of club that was situated in such a fashion that young players were dropped off by their parents in both tractors and Mercedes’.

“We weren’t always the best, but we were a nice club. I loved it.”

Brown remembers her first-ever tournament. It was cold. The other team saw that she was on the team and were like “ah…we can’t tackle the girl.”

“It made me feel so happy because I was like, ‘All right, we’ll score more then.’”

Her team was like “…let’s give the ball to Abbie then and let her run.” They won that tournament.

That’s how things went until she was 12 years old and helped form a U15 girls side at the club, which “…was basically friends from school or family friends and a few players who were a bit older who were just trying the game.”

With a sense of joy and a certain pride, she adds: “We were an odd bunch.”

With her passion for rugby unwavering, a 16-years-old Brown left home to attend Hartpury College and join their prestigious women’s rugby academy.

Then, in her third year at Hartpury, Brown’s career dreams changed. With the professionalization of women’s rugby in England, a new possibility emerged.

At just 19 years old, Brown’s newfound dream became a reality. She was offered a contract for the 2015-16 season. Two weeks later, she moved to London. She hasn’t left.

“Doing your hobby as your job – that’s ridiculous,” Brown says. “It’s like ‘how is that even possible?’ It’s definitely a privilege to be a part of it all.”

Less than a year later, she represented the British flag in Rio.

“It was mad.”

Nearly four years on, she’s preparing for the next Olympic Games, having helped Britain (represented by England in the qualification process) earn a ticket to Tokyo.

“It’s incredible to see what she’s done,” says Brown’s Mom, Julia. “It’s wonderful to see her playing the game she loves and inspiring the next generation. She’s gone out and achieved what she set out to do through her own hard work and determination. She has shown grit and motivation
during the tough times as well as the good times.”

And if you get to know Abbie, you get the feeling all of it still seems a bit surreal for her. That’s the best type of trailblazer – the type that gets just as passionate about the charity she supports as she does the rugby she plays.

When engaging with Honeypot Children’s Charity – a charity that gives respite and support to young carers between the ages of five to 12 – Abbie is just Abbie.

“It’s about giving kids that opportunity to be a child for the day,” says Brown, who is also currently taking a child psychology course. “I’m very passionate about giving children that side of it. I was very privileged growing up, so I want others who might not be as privileged to still have the opportunity to just be kids. It’s an amazing charity and they do so much with kids.”

She says she doesn’t really have a hobby. That’s partly because she made her hobby into her profession.

But then she thinks a bit longer… “If socializing is a hobby, I’ll take it.” She says it on the phone – but one can almost see a contagious smile on the other side.

Perhaps, that’s Brown right there. That’s the person who had a smile for days after a chance encounter in a service station. That’s the person who just wants to put a smile on a child’s face. That’s the person who captains England’s Sevens side as one big family.

Brown is sitting on 99 matches played all-time on the Sevens Series and there too, she’s ever the facilitator, the playmaker, and the doer of things in the hard areas of the park. Her 200 runs all-time has her atop her country’s all-time leaderboard, and her 137 tackles has her second all-time among English players.

Perhaps, most times, it’s the little things.