Collins: 'As a leader in sport I have a responsibility'

Jilly Collins, Rugby Australia's Head of Women's Rugby and Rugby Participation, discusses her career in the game and why she wants more female administrators to follow in her footsteps.

Jilly Collins has enjoyed a varied career in sport since leaving Cardiff Metropolitan University for the Welsh Rugby Union in December 2004.

In the intervening 15 years Collins has worked primarily in rugby administration but her CV also boasts a stint as a Citing Commissioner at the Rugby Football Union, Match Manager and Match Commissioner roles at the previous two Rugby World Cups, seven years working for Sport England and 18 months as Head of Venues at Rugby League World Cup 2017.

That last role took her to the southern hemisphere where she is currently Head of Women’s Rugby and Rugby Participation at Rugby Australia.

Collins attributes a certain amount of circumstantial good fortune to her success. As a teenager she lived in an area of south-west England in which women’s rugby was popular and at school she was taught by a chemistry teacher who was keen to put together a girls’ team.

In her professional career, Collins has been backed by bosses who were not afraid to give her the platform on which to develop. And having forged a successful career in sports administration, she is keen to encourage the next generation of female talent to emerge.

“I am proud of what I’ve achieved in my working career,” Collins told World Rugby.

“On reflection, I certainly hope that I have led the way for more women to follow in my footsteps, however, at the time in each role I was focused on working hard and doing the best possible job I could.

“I’ve also been very fortunate throughout my career to be well supported by the people around me, both professionally and personally. 

“I couldn’t have done it without the people that have backed me and hopefully I’ve done them proud and continue to do so.

“Overall my hope is that more young women look at the sports industry as an exciting and a genuinely viable career path.”

Women in leadership

With that in mind, Collins places significant value in the leadership at Rugby Australia. 

“My current boss [Raelene Castle] is the first female chief executive of a tier one rugby nation. I think it’s fantastic for the sport and the wider business world to have a woman in such a high profile leadership position.

“Raelene has been invaluable for my own development too, she’s a great leader and I am proud to work for her and Rugby Australia.”

Collins’ desire to encourage more women to think about sports administration as a career path is evident in her work with World Rugby’s Women’s Executive Leadership Scholarship programme.

Since March, she has served as a mentor to scholarship recipient Iryna Arkhytska and hosted the Ukrainian on a whistle-stop tour of Australia, Fiji and New Zealand in August.

“Being a mentor to Iryna is a privilege and certainly not one way, I have learnt a lot and gained some great insights into the development of rugby in Ukraine,” Collins said.

“I actually think as a leader in sport, I have a responsibility to support in this way. It is important that I share my experiences, help develop others and invest time in people.

“It would be easy for me to get tunnel vision and focus on my own agenda, but doing that all the time would make me a very average leader.

“I enjoy that mentoring also allows me time to reflect on my own development and experiences and share aspects that I hope are useful to others.

“Being a mentor is both grounding and useful and it is something I would encourage all leaders to do.”

Promoting gender equality

The ‘Rugby Participation’ portion of Collins’ job title means that she has responsibility for growing the player base in Australia for both females and males.

And she is keen to promote greater gender balance when it comes to rugby-specific roles, such as coaching, within the country.

“Rugby Australia would have nearly an even split of male and female employees overall. Where the gender challenge remains is in the rugby-specific roles,” Collins explained. 

“So, for example, coaches or high performance managers, and I believe more needs to be done to address this.

“I think over the course of the next decade we’ll see more women in technical rugby roles, which for me is really exciting.

“When I talk about getting more female coaches into high performance roles, success for me is when we have women coaching professional men’s teams as well as elite women’s teams.

“I know this is not a unique challenge for rugby and something that most sports need to address.”

The real success story

So, are we close to seeing a female coach in Australian Super Rugby? “I hope so. Although we can absolutely accelerate the development of female coaches, the reality is that becoming a top-level coach takes years and years of development and mainly in a voluntary capacity. 

“You have got to have the experience under your belt, you can’t blag that, and I would hate to put anyone in a position where they are set up to fail.

“It can be a real challenge for many women to find the time to invest in their coaching development alongside competing priorities. The challenge for us is to ensure more female coaches are supported and nurtured in an environment that allows them to develop in a manageable and sustainable way.”

Collins hopes to see female coaches involved with Australia at both the 2024 Olympic Games and Rugby World Cup 2025 but high performance is not her sole focus.

Ultimately, it is her aim to ensure that rugby is a welcoming option for girls at a grassroots level.

“If there is a young girl that wants to play rugby – wherever she is in the world – my hope is that she has the opportunity locally to her to play the format of the game that she wants whether that’s 15s or sevens,” Collins said.

“That for me is the real success story and I’ll know we’ve cracked it when consistently across all clubs, a girl can lace up her boots and go and play at a local rugby club that welcomes girls with open arms as much as they do the boys.”

If those youngsters in turn decide to become administrators in later life then they will have a shining example to follow in Collins.

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