When a torn ACL effectively ended Meaghan Howat’s hopes of representing Canada at Rugby World Cup 2010, she reasoned that working in sport was the next best thing to playing it.
Howat had excelled at both rugby and hockey during her time as a student at the University of Guelph, being named female athlete of the year in 2007.
She went on to represent Canada in 15s, lining up at fly-half in a 25-3 defeat of Wales in Taff’s Well in November, 2007. But following her knee injury, Howat came to the agonising conclusion that she was unlikely to realise her ambition of playing at Rugby World Cup 2010 in England.
Instead, she returned to her studies and enrolled at the University of Notre Dame, where in 2011 she achieved her masters of business administration, with concentrations in both finance and marketing.
The decision paid off the following year when Rugby Canada appointed Howat as the manager of its national women’s programme. Although aged only 28, she had reservations about taking on such a role.
“I connected with a few people I knew from the organisation and then that kind of just worked out so well,” Howat told World Rugby.
🇨🇦 Congratulations to former @RugbyCanada international & current Board Member Meaghan Howat on being awarded a @WorldRugby Women’s Executive Leadership Scholarship for @RugbyAmericasN in 2021! #WomenInRugby #ChoosetoChallenge #RANRugby #IWD2021 pic.twitter.com/iyayrsywWw— RugbyAmericasNorth (@RugbyAmericasN) March 8, 2021
“I remember telling Mike Chu at the time, I'm not sure this role is really for me… because you're so close to the Olympics, I know how important this role is.
“And, he said: 'Come give it a try and we'll work with you'. And, honestly, after my first tour to Dubai, I really loved the role. I loved working with the athletes.”
“Honoured and excited”
Howat jokes that “the rest is history, I suppose” and she’s right. Having worked briefly in finance following graduation, she knew that this was where she wanted to be.
“Once I started with Rugby Canada, there was no turning back,” Howat said.
Following four years in the role, which culminated with a bronze medal at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, she was promoted to head up Rugby Canada’s sevens operations, overseeing both the men’s and women’s programmes.
Howat left Rugby Canada at the end of 2018. “I felt like I had done a lot and I wanted to have more opportunity to grow,” she said.
“It was sad. I loved the athletes that I worked with, I enjoyed working with my staff.”
Howat returned to the University of Guelph to become a manager of athlete services, and until May retained a place on the Rugby Canada board as an athlete representative.
It is her long-term goal to become Rugby Canada CEO and that ambition has ensured she has continued to scout out opportunities for professional development.
That is why she began a PhD at Guelph in 2020, and it is also the driving factor behind her decision to apply for the World Rugby Women’s Executive Leadership Scholarship.
Howat was accepted onto the programme at the second attempt in March and hasn’t let the small matter of being heavily pregnant at the time get in the way of her making the most of it.
“[I was] very honoured and excited,” she said.
“Obviously, my long-term goal is to continue to move up in Rugby Canada or other rugby jobs, so to be able to have that scholarship and know that Katie [Sadleir] felt that I was deserving of it really was a great feeling.”
Becoming a mum
Howat’s first child, son Bowen, arrived on 21 April, meaning that she had to take a three-month break following the first call with her mentor Robbie McRobbie, to concentrate on being a mum.
She has since earmarked gaps in her professional expertise that she intends to focus on filling and faces an unenviable schedule over the next few months as she attempts to juggle the scholarship with motherhood, her PhD course and a new role at the Canadian Rugby Players’ Association.
“It’s been great. I think, in a lot of ways I had so much preparation for the baby,” Howat said.
“I say Rugby Canada helped prepare me because it was such a hard-working environment all the time and lots of travel, so you adapt to not a lot of sleep when you do time changes.
“So, it's honestly been great. I think a really good [piece of] advice I had, which was from Annabel [Kehoe], another recipient this year, who said, just give yourself three months to realise that you won't be able to do anything.”
Howat added: “It’s just pacing yourself. I've learnt you can't really have more than one call a day at this point, especially if you're home alone.”
One of the major factors in Howat’s decision to apply for the scholarship in the first place was the opportunity to learn from a network of female leaders around the world.
“It’s extremely important. I think that one of the greatest parts of the scholarship is learning. Every rugby union has its own unique challenges and the women involved within them, you can learn so much from them,” she explained.
“I think every time you hear about how they've had a challenge, how they’ve overcome it, what their process was, it helps each of us manage them when we face them.
“[Regardless of] whether obviously you approach it very differently, depending on how you are, what your union situation is, but just learning and sharing from all of them.
“And I think there’s also the supportive piece, so whenever there is a victory for women, whether they made it onto their board or, you know, whether it would be one day World Rugby Council, those types of things, it's so celebratory and it's great to see the women supporting other women.”
Howat has big ambitions for her own career, but ultimately she hopes to be able to use the skills she is learning and the network she is building to help players in Canada get the most out of their time on the pitch.
“I hope to be able to really make our organisation into something that when athletes leave, they largely have had a really positive experience,” she said.
“Whether that's because we've created much more mental health support, whether we've created better high-performance structure around our athletes. That's my number one goal.”