Board members are sometimes accused of being out of touch with those below them, but that is not a claim that can be levelled against Lauren Rothwell.
When Rothwell, a 2019 World Rugby Women's Executive Leadership Scholarship recipient, was elected to the Bermuda Rugby Board as its Public Relations Representative, it capped a rapid rise within the sport.
Despite growing up watching rugby, it was not until she returned home to the Caribbean island four years ago, following the completion of her studies in Canada and Scotland that, aged 23, she decided to try playing it. Her first experience came in Bermuda’s domestic touch league, before she was convinced to give sevens, and contact, a go.
Rothwell, now 27, will win her fifth international cap this weekend as part of the Bermuda squad that competes in the Rugby Americas North (RAN) Women’s Sevens in the Cayman Islands, a tournament that doubles as a regional qualifier for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.
Her presence on the Board, as an active national team player, allows her to provide practical insight.
“It’s nice to be able to give feedback,” Rothwell told World Rugby. “You know, it’s little decisions like changing the time of the games in the domestic league.
Winning isn't everything
“If you’re not playing that’s a great idea, but if you’re playing you can give back valuable input: Is it hot at 2pm? Is it easier for everybody to get to the pitch for 10am?
“I think growing as a player and growing on the Board go hand-in-hand because you get that feedback that you wouldn’t have just from a Board perspective.”
Rothwell and her team-mates are not expected to return from the Truman Bodden Stadium in George Town with a place at Tokyo 2020 still on the cards. Bermuda finished the last edition eighth of 10 teams, a year after a return of only 19 points from one draw and five defeats threatened the team’s future.
In that context, 2018 was seen as a positive result and Rothwell is keen to carry some of the momentum built in Barbados into this weekend’s tournament when Bermuda will face defending champions Mexico, the Bahamas, Jamaica, St Lucia and Trinidad and Tobago in a round-robin format.
“Our goal is to just represent ourselves well, play a game that we’re proud of but to go out and enjoy ourselves and have a lot of fun and just kind of show everybody what we can do and what we’re there for.
“So we’re not so focused on first or second place, but just really having a good time and showing our skills.”
Player growth target
The most pressing objective for Rothwell and Bermuda Rugby is to grow the current player base, which at around 30-45 players is smaller than that of touch and relies heavily on the island’s ex-pat population.
“It’s still a fairly new sport,” Rothwell explained. “On a contact level, it’s less ingrained [than touch], so there’s still the concern of ‘Oh, it’s a contact sport and that’s not really for girls’. So, it’s getting around that kind of idea.”
In order to spread awareness about the game, and overcome that perception, the union recently introduced a development programme aimed at local schools that has produced some encouraging results.
“We pulled in a lot of youth players, a lot of teenagers,” Rothwell said. “We went to the schools and we spoke about the sport and what opportunities are available, and then we ran a programme for people to test it out and see if they liked it.
“And a lot of the girls who did the programme continued to come to training and play with the more senior players.
“So, it’s great to see it growing and we’re just kind of working on continuing to pull people in, and get more and more players – because it’s a sport that once it picks up, it’s going to take off.”
It was that potential, and the opportunity to grow the game in line with the ideals set out by World Rugby’s Women in Rugby strategy, that convinced Rothwell to apply for the scholarship.
“For me it was the idea that I could have some influence on the Board,” she said.
“Rugby is still one of the sports that’s very much men and women as opposed to just rugby as a whole, so I think it’s got great potential to get to the point where it’s just rugby and to have any role in influencing that development – especially within Bermuda – is really exciting to me.”
Since her scholarship was announced on the eve of International Women’s Day in March, Rothwell has worked closely with her mentor Jamie Barnwell, who also serves as Bermuda women’s sevens head coach.
"I think there’s great potential. It’s definitely a growing sport, and it’s a sport that I see continuing to grow. I think the addition of sevens to the Olympics is a big thing for, especially, young girls to see that they can play rugby and get really far with it."
Barnwell’s experience working in women’s rugby and the pair’s established relationship has helped them identify opportunities to further Rothwell’s development. She has enrolled on an online women in leadership course at Cornell University, while in June she attended the Women in Sport Summit at Twickenham.
Her experience so far has only renewed her confidence that women’s rugby has a bright future in Bermuda.
“I think there’s great potential. It’s definitely a growing sport, and it’s a sport that I see continuing to grow. I think the addition of sevens to the Olympics is a big thing for, especially, young girls to see that they can play rugby and get really far with it.
“It’s a great inspiration for them as well. So there’s a lot of potential growth, I know that the Bermuda Football Association is also trying to grow its game.
“I think Bermuda in general is facing the growth of women’s sports, so it’s going to be great to see future athletes joining up whether it’s through rugby, through football, through basketball, by whatever means, I think the growth of sport for women in Bermuda is going to be huge over the next few years.”
Part of the pitch that Rothwell and her colleagues at Bermuda Rugby made when they went into local schools centred around the opportunity sevens provides to represent the nation at the Olympic Games.
So, does she believe that the Caribbean island could one day participate in rugby at a Games?
“Down the line?” Rothwell said. “Yeah, I definitely think Bermuda stands a chance to continue growing the programme and working hard.
“They definitely have the opportunity to make it to the Olympics, for sure.”