The New Zealander driving the women’s game in World Rugby, Katie Sadleir, tells Ashley Stanley the sport is well-prepared to get through the Covid-19 pandemic and make the most of a ‘golden year’ for women in 2021. 

Working across time zones is pretty standard for Katie Sadleir.

At the best of times, World Rugby’s head of the women’s game has a jam-packed schedule.

Throw in a global pandemic, and the volume of meetings in the Dublin-based Kiwi’s calendar is like a high ball – it’s a given there will be an incline to a point to allow time for the attacking team to assess the play, get in position for the next move and hopefully regain control before it hits the ground.

Before our conversation even starts, it almost doesn’t happen. I’ve slept through my 6.30am alarm.

If it wasn’t for my two-year-old daughter climbing over me, I may have missed my chance to speak to Sadleir, who held ground-breaking roles in New Zealand high performance sport, before becoming the world’s first general manager of women’s rugby.

But it all turns out okay. After my first attempt to call her goes unanswered, I find out that Sadleir, too, had been taking a quick nap between her evening meetings.

It had been an early start for the former Olympian, and her working day will most likely carry on beyond midnight – she has two more meetings after ours, at 9pm and 11pm.

Who could blame her for grabbing a little shut-eye? And to her credit, she’s quickly into work mode.

It’s not just rugby calls Sadleir has been making during this unusual time. She’s been in regular contact with the women at the head of other female divisions across international sporting codes – Sarai Bareman in football, and Holly Colvin in cricket – during the Covid-19 shutdown. They share and critique ideas as well as check in on each other.

She also had a chat last week with Claire Briegal, CEO of the International Netball Federation, to share information between the two sports.

(Earlier this week, Netball New Zealand chief executive Jennie Wyllie called for netball to be included in the round-table discussions).

“We’re certainly open to sharing good practice and supporting each other – not only through the Covid period, but also ongoing,” says Sadleir, who represented New Zealand at the 1984 Olympics in synchronised swimming.

“I’ve worked in sport for a very long time to know that it can be both the least important, and the absolute most important thing for people during this type of environment. Sport can provide a huge opportunity to create quick social cohesion and individual well-being.”

In my chat with Sadleir, we talk for just over thirty minutes about what impact Covid-19 would have on the 2021 World Cup in New Zealand, what success looks like for women’s rugby and whether she thought the pandemic would put women’s sport on the backfoot – after it had gained a lot of ground in recent years.

Sadleir’s short answer to the questions is that they’re well prepared to get through this. All they have to do is stick to the game plan.

The game plan being the 2017-2025 women’s development strategy – focused on accelerating the global development of women in rugby. The ultimate goal is to normalise women’s involvement in rugby, on and off the field.

*Watch Katie Sadleir speak to Rikki Swannell in Women in Sport Aotearoa’s Leadership from Lockdown series*

Sadleir says people will be impacted by the pandemic for a long time to come, but at the moment, health and safety is the most significant priority for World Rugby.

“What this environment has done is made us look at our strategy to see if it’s still fit for purpose,” she says. “And we absolutely believe it is, in terms of what we’re trying to drive and some of the challenges we are trying to address.

“My role is to make sure women in rugby don’t go backwards, and to make sure I work with our unions, players and coaches around the world to make sure they have the tools and support they need to get moving as soon as they can.”

The female game is poised for a major boost in 2021, a year Sadleir calls “the golden year” of women’s rugby. You can tell by her tone she’s genuinely excited. 

Both the sevens at the Tokyo Olympics and the pinnacle of the 15s game, the World Cup, have now been concertinaed into one season.

And although the 12-month postponement to the Olympics poses some challenges for the World Cup event – there are only seven weeks between the two events – Sadleir says it also creates some amazing opportunities to profile the sport.

“A Rugby World Cup gives you a stage to expose high-level rugby to countries around the world. I’ve been calling it the golden year of women’s rugby – having two major tournaments back-to-back displaying our sevens and 15s format,” she says.

There is no talk of moving the date of the World Cup, slated for September and October.

The challenge is bringing the world to New Zealand, but Sadleir says it’s just as important to see how people take a piece of Aotearoa back to their country after the event.

“The main theme for the tournament is engaging New Zealand and the Oceania region in a celebration of women’s rugby and, at the same time, supercharging the game globally,” she says.

The World Cup also marks the halfway point in the development strategy.

The event will bring together leaders from around the world – some who contributed to the early stages of the strategy – to see how the first four years have gone, and “reset and re-imagine” what’s possible for the last four. It will provide a stock-take against the major changes World Rugby want to see in the game.

“We’ve got some aspirational targets across five pillars – participation, high performance and competitions, inspirational leadership, profile with impact and creating new and diverse income streams,” Sadleir says.

Until then the experienced administrator uses a quote from a good friend to explain the current situation – “when we will, we can.”

“It’s so simple and there are a lot of things to take into consideration. Safety is the absolute most important, not just for ourselves and sport, but for the wider society,” she says.

“But we believe in the power of rugby to support individuals, communities and countries in terms of great leadership, aspirations and social change. And when we will, we can.”

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