Harlequins and England forward Shaunagh Brown says “putting more resources into urban areas” could encourage more women from ethnic minorities to play rugby.
The prop – one of only two women of colour to be awarded a central contract by the Red Roses this season – says “rugby must be more accessible”.
“When I visit schools and clubs, it’s generally white kids playing,” Brown told BBC Sport for Black History Month.
“You need grass to play and I went to a secondary school that didn’t have any.”
Brown’s Harlequins team-mate Lagi Tuima is the other woman of colour among the 28 contracted England players.
“It’s about going to places where rugby is not accessible and opening it up to more people,” added Brown.
“It’s not just for those who went to a private school or who come from a middle-class background.”
‘I play with my hair out’
Earlier this week, Bulgaria’s football team were ordered to play two matches behind closed doors – one suspended for two years – for their fans’ racist abuse of England players during a Euro 2020 qualifier.
Brown, though, says she has “never suffered any discrimination” for her ethnicity while playing rugby.
“I get so much encouragement,” she said. “I play with my hair out, which is my trademark, so many people recognise that.
“Two of the regular girls that turn up to watch every game, one of whom is white, wore afros once just to represent me.”
Versatility and empowerment
Brown has worked as a gas engineer, a commercial diver and fire-fighter, but says sport has always been the “biggest part” of her life.
She competed in the hammer for England in the Commonwealth Games and tried her hand at professional boxing before settling on the “physicality” of rugby.
“It just makes me happy inside to know that it’s a physical contest,” she said. “The beauty of rugby is that some people run around things and other people run through things.”
Women’s rugby is growing in England, and this season Saracens and Worcester Warriors have become the first Premier 15s clubs to pay their players match fees.
Brown says she is excited to “empower” her growing fanbase.
“I have always been aware that as long as I want to do something, I can put myself forward and do it – but some people don’t have that,” she said.
“They need to be shown, and I’m OK with that – whether it’s by playing rugby or going into a job that’s male dominated like gas engineering or commercial diving.
“If they can see it being done by a mixed-race female from south London – who doesn’t say all her ‘t’s and ‘th’s – then they can do it.”
‘The World Cup is the goal’
England are the dominant force in women’s rugby in the northern hemisphere, with Brown part of a squad that won the Grand Slam this year.
But it can be hard for her family to keep up with her success.
“We won the Grand Slam and the Six Nations this year and when I went home the next day, my 21-year-old nephew asked me if I had been up to anything over the weekend,” she said.
“He did not have a clue that I had been playing rugby for the last six weeks and I think it’s one of the best sentences he has ever said to me.”
England begin their autumn internationals with home and away games against France next month, before facing Italy.
Brown says “everything” the squad are doing is working towards the 2021 World Cup in New Zealand.
“It will be a tough task but nobody wants to watch easy rugby with one side taking over,” she said.
“We want to be the best in the world, but to be the best in the world you have to beat all the others.”