In “The Level Up,” changemakers in the fitness and wellness industries tell us how they’re making an impact in their communities, from pushing for inclusivity to promoting body acceptance and so much more. Here, England rugby player Sadia Kabeya discusses her journey into the Red Roses, her ambitions for rugby, and what it’s like playing alongside your teacher on the world stage.
When Sadia Kabeya first picked up a rugby ball, it was purely a matter of chance. A rugby game at her school needed the extra numbers and a teacher handed her some boots, quickly explained the basic elements of the game, and the rest is history. Aged just 20, Kabeya is now a key player in England’s Red Roses team, who recently reached the finals in the Rugby World Cup and only narrowly lost out to New Zealand. “You can’t really ask for a better experience at your first World Cup; being in New Zealand and playing at a sold out Eden Park stadium. And even though we didn’t get the result we wanted in the final game, I still wouldn’t change a thing about the whole journey,” she tells me of her first World Cup experience.
One of just four players of colour on the Red Roses World Cup squad, Kabeya has also been speaking up the importance of race and class diversity in rugby, and how she’s proud to be a role model in a game which has historically been predominantly white, male, and middle class. “I can enjoy rugby at the top level and not change anything about myself, and by doing that, I hope I can show other people that there is a place for us all in rugby, and sport in general.”
Here, Kabeya tells Bustle about her journey from South London to the top of professional rugby, and how she hopes to make rugby a more inclusive sport.
How did you initially get into rugby? Anything in particular that sparked that moment of passion for the sport? And what was your experience with representation as a Black woman?
I got into rugby at school from a young age, around 13 or 14. I was always sporty — I did athletics and gymnastics growing up — and in school, I would always go to any competition I could. If they needed the extra numbers, I was there. And that’s what happened with rugby. My teacher said there was a spot to fill in one of the games, handed me some boots, and quickly explained the basic rules. When I first started, I was just playing because I enjoyed it. I enjoyed being able to run about. I enjoyed rugby with my friends. And then over the years, I encouraged my friends to join our school team, and so, when I was playing rugby, I was playing people who looked and sounded like me. And that was the case up until about Year 11, when I branched out and started playing rugby outside of school. When I joined Surrey County, that’s when I started to notice that rugby wasn’t like my experience at school and I was one of three people of colour in a squad of around 40 people.
This continued as I rose up through the ranks, and it really hit me when I was around 17 that I was different to the other girls playing rugby. I’m very much a South London girl and I was kind of thrown into environments where people didn’t understand my jokes, didn’t understand my style, where people turned their noses up at the music that I was listening to. Being so young and in a squad of women, you want to fit in and feel comfortable. So, I started to change myself. I changed how I was speaking, what I was wearing, how I styled my hair, because I just didn’t want comments to be made about me. I just wanted to fit in. The differences, even the cultural differences, were so standout for me. It did affect me more negatively than positively. Especially as in the past year or so, I’ve felt I’m able to fully be myself in the sport.
Did you you find accessing rugby at school relatively easy? Was it a sport that was taught or offered to girls at your school?
My school was very much an anomaly. Being in South London and already having a rugby academy at the school for the boys, rugby was pretty accessible for me and our teachers really encouraged that too. We didn’t have rugby lessons as such, but we had a rugby club with multiple games during the week which was open to students wanting to get into the sport. If I didn’t have that, I probably wouldn’t have picked up a rugby ball until many years later, if at all. Having those resources available for girls like me definitely cemented my love and enjoyment for the game.
Your fellow Red Roses player Bryony Cleall was your teacher at school, how important is it for you (and others) to have role models like her?
So important! Teachers can give kids opportunities to play a sport that may not otherwise have tried. There shouldn’t be any restrictions on sports, girls can play sports that boys can play. I personally think everyone should have the chance to play rugby, because it’s a sport for everyone. Having someone like Bry to push me to get to this point was a key part of my journey with rugby. I wouldn’t be here right now without her and all my teachers and coaches who pushed and inspired me over the years.
How did it feel to get called up to the England team last year, and more recently, to be part of the World Cup squad? Especially at such a young age and to play a final in a record-breaking sold out crowd for women’s rugby?
I got the call around two years ago when I was 18 and still playing at Wasps. The England team told me they’d been watching me play and wanted to invite me to play the pre-season with the squad. At first, I was shocked that England not only knew my name but had been watching me play, but then I quickly realised that I would be going into pre-season – the hardest time of the year for professional rugby – with people I’d looked up to for so long. From that moment on, I worked incredibly hard, taking the opportunity I’d been given and really giving it my best shot. I didn’t have any expectations though, I was just happy that I was on England’s radar.
Fast forward a few months, and I got my first cap in Nov. 2021 at Twickenham Stoop against Canada. Those four or five months were such a whirlwind because I never expected to earn my first cap, and it was such a relief to see that I would be a part of the England squad for the World Cup too. Stepping out into a sold-out Eden Park in a Red Roses jersey was very much a pinch-me moment.
What advice do you have for young girls who want to get into rugby, or sport in general?
Go for it. Rugby is a sport for absolutely everybody and you will find your place and your people here. Also, don’t be afraid of what people might think of you or the stereotypes that tend to come with playing rugby, just enjoy it in that moment. People often get worried about how they’ll be perceived or what their friends might think of them, but I can tell you that rugby is a very cool sport! Just go for it. Don’t be afraid. Whatever happens happens.