Growing up in Waikouaiti in New Zealand’s South Island, playing rugby was not something Rowena Davenport thought was possible, however much she wanted it to be.
Davenport would spend Saturdays standing on the touchline with her siblings at Eastern RFC, alongside their rugby-mad father, if only for the bag of chips and fizzy drink on offer after the match.
She finally got the chance to lace up a pair of boots when she attended university in Dunedin, and rugby took on an even greater importance in her life.
An attack-minded second five-eighth, who enjoyed a sidestep, Davenport played for several clubs in the city. “I wasn’t the best player but I enjoyed it so much!” she told World Rugby.
“That’s when I really understood why people love the game so much in this country. For me, I really enjoyed the physicality of it but equally the team culture was really important, and I think rugby does team culture really well.”
“I’m in a privileged position”
Off the pitch, Davenport built a successful career in finance and the skills she developed in her professional life led to her being appointed to the Otago Rugby Football Union (ORFU) board in 2014.
Five years later, she became the first woman to become chair of a major provincial union in New Zealand, following the resignation of Keith Cooper.
We would like to acknowledge Rowena Davenport who has been appointed chairwoman of the Otago Rugby Football Union. She becomes the first female to lead a Mitre 10 Cup union.#TryAndStopUs #WomenInRugby pic.twitter.com/MKswTwjNIe— Black Ferns (@BlackFerns) May 23, 2019
Davenport served as ORFU chair until March, when she stepped down from the role two weeks after being confirmed as one of 12 recipients of the World Rugby Women’s Executive Leadership Scholarship for 2022.
Her skills will not be lost to the game she loves. Last month, Davenport was appointed to the New Zealand Rugby (NZR) board on a three-year term alongside the country’s former Governor General Dame Patsy Reddy.
“It’s really exciting,” she said. “Now that I have a seat at the table, I'm in a privileged position to advocate for change and support New Zealand Rugby to demonstrate how it can support the more diverse and inclusive environments for women and other groups that are underrepresented.
“I've had a lot of wonderful opportunities as a result of being involved in rugby and am delighted to get the recognition that comes with the World Rugby Women’s Executive Leadership Scholarship in amongst some very impressive women from right around the world.
“It’s a very humbling experience, and a fantastic opportunity for me to invest in my own professional development and growth on the back of all the opportunities I've had in rugby to date.”
Davenport has never been entirely comfortable with the focus on gender that her work in rugby governance has elicited.
However, she is keen to use the scholarship and her place on the NZR board to help other women follow in her footsteps.
“It's important for me to raise my profile to show others what's possible and give them an opportunity to learn from my experiences in rugby,” Davenport said.
“It's a big part of why I was interested in the scholarship.
“I've always been taken back by the attention I've got for the role I've played in rugby based on my gender. I understand that's because there's been so few women involved to date, but it’s encouraging to see that is improving.
“I take my role as a woman in governance seriously, I want to demonstrate that there are pathways to make it more transparent, understand the barriers to getting more women involved in rugby governance and give another perspective on all other rugby matters as well.”
Davenport added: “I've had a really positive and encouraging experience in rugby. I've also observed some of the barriers to achieving more diversity.
“I think some of it is transparency and people understanding the pathways that are available to them.
“I've got an opportunity now to advocate and support for adapting some of the structural barriers that will support more women in governance roles. So, I'm really excited about that opportunity.”
This year is a huge one for women’s sport in New Zealand, which recently hosted the ICC Women’s Cricket World Cup and is set to stage Rugby World Cup 2021, playing in 2022, in October.
RWC 2021 will give Davenport a chance to meet fellow Scholarship recipients in person, and she believes it can also act as a springboard for the popularity of the women’s game globally.
“We’ve got a great opportunity with the World Cup in New Zealand this year to showcase the talents and abilities in women’s rugby and just how far the women's game has come,” she said.
“We've got some fantastic teams competing. We've seen them in the lead up, and it's a really exciting style of rugby that I hope is well showcased for others to see.
“In doing so I think it'll be a great opportunity to drive greater participation in women's rugby here and across the world.”
Davenport is hopeful that the future is bright for women in rugby, but while a lot of good work has been done, she knows there is still more to do.
“I would like to see more women involved at every level of the game,” she said. “It's become apparent that we need more women involved in high performance, particularly around coaching and managing.
“Obviously I'd love to see the participation rate of young girls and women improve as well, because I think if we had more people engaged with our sport, we'll see more people involved in lots of the other roles in and around rugby.
“That’s how I developed my love of the game and it's gone on to lead me down a path in rugby administration. But there's lots of pathways available and I'd love to see more diversity involved in all sorts of roles within the game.”