As Shaunagh Brown drove to her first day of work at Cayman Islands Rugby Club, along the coastal road that hugs the crystal-clear waters of the Caribbean Sea, she felt content.
Brown had been approached several months before by Cayman Rugby’s Female Rugby Manager, and former England hooker, Mercedes Foy, who was on the look-out for a coach to help expand the women and girls’ programme in the islands.
Having not made a decision on her playing future at the time, Brown let the idea “sit for a little bit”, but following her retirement from Harlequins and England in December, she contacted Foy to accept.
Over the next four months, she will work six days a week to expose as many young women and girls on the islands as possible to rugby, its values and the opportunities it presents.
Brown admits it provides a good opportunity to take a break and to put a full stop on her playing career, but she has clearly not travelled to the Caribbean for a holiday.
“I’ve never been so busy,” Brown said at the end of her first week in the role. “I’ve not had an 8am start in a long time!”
In that first week alone, Brown visited four schools, putting on up to four coaching sessions per day for aspiring female players.
Something that appealed to Brown about the role was taking rugby to those who haven’t previously engaged with it.
“What I'm really interested in is those who have Caymanian heritage and are born and bred here, who don't have the opportunity to play rugby and experience the growth it offers,” she added.
“It’s a chance to try and get to those people, especially me being a mixed-race female, with a similar skin tone to a lot of them, a similar hair type to a lot of them, to let them know that rugby can be for you as well.”
“I want to be the person to keep telling people, reminding people that you can play rugby, too, because it is a fantastic game.”
Prior to leaving London for Grand Cayman, Brown and Foy agreed on a goal to get Cayman Islands Rugby Club into government schools. That is something they have been able to start doing in only Brown’s second week in the Caribbean.
“The whole of Cayman Rugby is completely on board with that message because for them and for me it's about getting more people playing rugby,” Brown explained.
“Growing up in South London, I didn't know private schools were a thing because it wasn't my world, and I didn't know rugby was a thing because nobody brought it into my school.
“So, it's a reflection of society that there's so much untapped talent in government schools. But it's about getting into [those schools] and not expecting them to come to you because why would they? They don't see rugby as for them, they don't see themselves playing rugby.
“What we can do is take rugby to them, put rugby on at their school, in their playground and let them see this is a fantastic game that could change your life.”
Brown’s own life has changed dramatically since she attended her first training session at Medway RFC seven years ago.
In the time that followed that fateful evening, Brown became a mainstay for Harlequins in the Premier 15s, earned a professional contract with England, won 30 caps for the Red Roses and played in a Rugby World Cup final.
But she is no longer a rugby player, having made her final appearance in the famous quarters of Quins on 27 December.
“It’s tough because it's been my identity for the last seven years. Even to the point now someone will say, ‘how do you want me to introduce you?’,” Brown said.
“I can’t say rugby player anymore. I just say retired rugby player for now, but I can't hang on to that title forever. So, it's like, what do I call myself? I've kind of settled on ‘Change Maker’ for my own self-given job title.
“It's tough because you think, well, what else am I going to do? And especially because I made the decision not to go straight into a career or back to what I was doing before, i.e., the fire service.
“So, there were loads of issues around finances and if I could look after myself that way and I’ve just set myself up in life where I can at the moment.
“What I do really enjoy is having freedom, and the freedom to have my own time. If I want to do something, I can say yes, and if I don't want to do something, I can say no and I'm not contractually obliged to do anything anymore, which is fantastic.
“So, [retiring was a] tough decision in terms of identity and what do I do next. But there's a lot of benefit and I'm currently enjoying retirement thoroughly.”
Rugby World Cup reflection
Brown will obviously always have the memories she made during her playing career, including in New Zealand last year when England came agonisingly close to winning Rugby World Cup 2021.
Of appearing in the final of that tournament, in front of a record 42,579 fans at Eden Park, Brown said: “Being in that atmosphere, in that environment, it just felt right. We didn’t feel out of place.”
The size of the attendance was of no consequence to Brown in the immediate aftermath of the 34-31 defeat to New Zealand, though.
“In that moment when that final whistle went, I thought, ‘well, that's it then, what a waste,” she said. “In that moment, it literally felt like it was all for nothing.
“Of course, when you come away from the pitch, you get your reasoning back and your sense back and, you go, of course, it wasn't all for nothing. We've changed the whole world of rugby because of what us as a team did on the pitch every year.
“But it was hard. It’s hard to think even now, how much different would life be if we would have won?”
(Photo credit: Caroline Deegan of Cayman Photography)