“Rugby is more than a game… it’s a culture,” is Abigail Mnikwa’s considered response when asked what has driven her involvement with the game over the past 15 years.
“There’s something about it that draws you in and it’s something that you then become passionate about.”
The latter sentiment is certainly true of Mnikwa, who was offered the opportunity to become the Zimbabwe U19 men’s national team’s physio back in 2006 as the squad prepared for the U19 World Championship in Dublin the following year.
Although a talented tennis player in her youth, who competed at the World University Games, Mnikwa had no previous rugby experience prior to that appointment.
However, she never felt out of place as a woman in the game, instead discovering a family that has helped support her on a successful and diverse journey over the past decade and a half.
As a physio, Mnikwa worked with various Zimbabwe national teams between 2006-18, including the senior men’s side, and became both a certified World Rugby Medical Educator and Trainer.
Zim U20 Women's Captain Milinda Tinarwo and ZRU Chairman of Womens Rugby Abigail Mnikwa receive kit from Enhanced Uniforms Solutions General Manager, Audrey Mpemba ahead of their two match series against South Africa U20 Women at Prince Edward #Rugby pic.twitter.com/SLCmwYuZjj— Official ZRU (@ZimRugbyUnion) June 26, 2019
In 2010, she was elected as secretary of the Harare Provincial Rugby Board, which set her on a path into the administration of the game. A year later, Mnikwa became a member of the Zimbabwe Rugby Union’s (ZRU) Women’s Rugby Committee, which she has chaired since 2016.
“I don't think I would be where I am today if I didn't have the passion or the drive, and it has opened up so many opportunities for me, both as an administrator and as a physio,” Mnikwa told World Rugby.
“I've always been comfortable, and I've always had support and that's the beauty of rugby. You meet the same people everywhere you go, so you become a unit where you are able to support each other.”
Becoming a better leader
In March, Mnikwa was announced as one of 12 recipients of the World Rugby Women’s Executive Leadership Scholarship for 2021.
Her acceptance onto the programme came at the second attempt, having been convinced to apply when reading the experiences of past recipients.
Mnikwa describes the news that she had been successful as both “shocking and humbling” and the Zimbabwean has been extremely busy as she thrives to make the most of her latest opportunity.
Determined to become a better leader while encouraging more women to take on governance roles within rugby, Mnikwa has completed an online course with Yale University and is due to begin a Master’s degree in business leadership in January.
“It’s fantastic to see women doing great things out there after having gone through the scholarship,” she said.
“I was hoping that by going through the scholarship, why not become a better leader within our rugby union as well and be able to impart what I learnt to other women?
“Because as it stands, we don't have enough women being involved in administration within the rugby community. So, I was hoping that with people seeing me getting that scholarship, they would be motivated to be more involved within the game on the administrative side.”
To that end, Mnikwa used a portion of her scholarship funds to put on a leadership skills workshop for women in Zimbabwe earlier this month.
She invited female managers and coaches from around the country, as well as several players who she believes have potential to become leaders, to the event in Harare with two attendees travelling around 800 kilometres to be there.
“It was really, really successful as we were able to pull in women not only from Harare but from across the country,” Mnikwa said.
“One of the things that I did was also get reviews from the different participants who took part in the workshop because I needed to find out whether it was worth it, to carry on in the same manner. Are the areas that we needed to improve?
“And 99 per cent of the people were like, we want more of such workshops. Is it possible for you to come to our different regions so that we are able to rope in more women?
“So, I'm hoping to be able to grow this workshop moving forward.”
Helping Zimbabwe’s pandemic response
Mnikwa has had to postpone a planned visit to South Africa due to the COVID-19 pandemic but hopes to be able to travel to New Zealand for the IWG World Conference on Women and Sport, and the Rugby World Cup 2021 final.
She is keen to learn more about how New Zealand’s high-performance structures operate, conscious that Zimbabwe has found it difficult to capitalise on its own flourishing schoolgirl game.
The visit will also be a fitting conclusion for what has been an incredibly, and exhaustingly, busy time for her.
Following the outbreak of the pandemic, Mnikwa volunteered at a COVID-19 hospital in Harare and for the past 18 months she has worked with ICU and high-dependency patients, as well as those suffering from long COVID.
“I had a lot of projects lined up and all of a sudden, everything was cancelled [due to the pandemic],” she explained.
“I didn't want to be sitting around doing nothing, so I was looking for voluntary work and then this job just appeared.”
Mnikwa admits to surviving on four hours sleep as she juggled work at the hospital with assignments and her responsibilities at the ZRU.
“It’s called adulting,” she said of her ability to do just that. No one could accuse Mnikwa being anything other than an impressive and inspirational leader.