Angela del Pan has witnessed first-hand the increase in numbers of women participating in rugby in Spain, and she has a plan to ensure that encouraging growth continues.
When Del Pan first picked up a rugby ball, at the turn of the century, there were around 900 registered female players in the Iberian country. In the next decade and a half that number swelled to 2,600.
Following the appearance of Del Pan and her team-mates at the Olympic Games 2016 in Rio, however, participation levels doubled, and the Spanish Rugby Federation’s (FER) ‘Mujeres en Rugby’ (‘Women in Rugby’) programme targeted an increase to around 6,000 registered players by the end of 2020.
Del Pan retired from playing following Rugby World Cup 2017. Having earned a Master’s degree in sports management while working as the team manager for the women’s sevens and 15s national squads, she was appointed High Performance Operations Manager at the FER at the end of 2019.
The former back-row was also awarded a World Rugby Women’s Executive Leadership Scholarship in March. And, although the past year has been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, she was keen to use those opportunities to encourage more Spanish players to remain in rugby once they hang up their boots.
“I've been looking at the research for my scholarship colleagues and they have done amazing work focusing on development and representation, and empowering women's rugby and coaching, which I think is the key to make this sport grow,” Del Pan told World Rugby.
“I think mostly we take care of the players when they're playing and then we have to take care of them to put them again in the ‘rugby wheel’ because normally they retire and then they find a job and they just disappear.
“So, I thought, if we have the best people in rugby working in our country to grow our rugby, in the end we will have really good rugby. You're going to improve this sport.”
Learning and improving
As High Performance Operations Manager, Del Pan is in daily contact with Spain’s best players and believes she and her team are “responsible for the well-being of the [national] teams”. Part of that role extends to helping with the transition once the time to retire comes.
Her enrolment on the Women’s Executive Leadership Scholarship has also proved beneficial, despite the pandemic, as she attempts to enhance her management skills for the benefit of the FER.
Plans to travel to the USA to experience the “number one country in sports high performance” had to be shelved, but she has instead used the time to return to the classroom and is looking at options for alternative study tours in the future.
“I expect to learn the tools that allow me to improve any project by leading,” she said.
“Not only in my professional life, [but] in my general life. Because I think this scholarship makes you learn and improve your leadership in a way that is going to make you enjoy every part of the job or anything you do.”
Del Pan has certainly gained a lifetime of enjoyment from the game since she followed her sister down to their local rugby club as a 13-year-old.
“I just found rugby [to be] amazing,” she said.
“It was like a family, and when you're a kid… it's really nice to have these people supporting you every day. Not only just training, I mean, they take care of you in your normal life.
“I don't know how to describe it, I always say rugby is not just a sport, it's a lifestyle.”
‘Unlocking a whole new life’
It was as she progressed from her club side to regional representation and ultimately the Spanish national team that Del Pan realised, “Well, maybe I'm not that bad, I can do something here”.
“It felt like unlocking a whole new life,” she said when asked to describe the feeling of playing for Spain for the first time.
“To be honest, I was so scared. I met fear and disappointment for the first time in my life that I can recall. I was just 18 years old, I mean, I was a baby.
“But, I felt so happy and so proud of wearing the jersey with my girls. And, it made like a click in me, [to say]: ‘Damn, I want this forever’.”
She would go on to represent her country at two Rugby World Cups and as many Rugby World Cup Sevens, as well as on the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series, but her proudest achievement remains booking Spain’s ticket to Rio.
“We got the last ticket to Rio in Dublin. We were playing in the last qualifier of the last qualifier to get that ticket,” Del Pan explained.
“I was so happy there and so proud of my team, because we made it. I mean, we worked so hard for it. It was a dream come true because since I started playing rugby, this is what I wanted, to be with my team there.”
Del Pan says she was honoured to “represent every single Spanish rugby girl in the biggest sporting event in the world” five years ago. That is a community that will only grow in future if the 35-year-old has anything to do with it.
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