How playing rugby has given “exceptional” Keira confidence both on and off the pitch

We spoke to the 16-year-old Youth Unstoppable about the importance of rugby and family to her life in the Scottish Highlands.

Raised near the remote highland town of Thurso, Keira Nellies has grown up in a family that values the positive impact that sport can have on a person’s life.

Parents Chris and Suzy have always encouraged their three children to be active, whether that be in the swimming pool, at a martial arts club or on the rugby pitch.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, given dad Chris is a former front-row forward, the oval ball has come to dominate the lives of both Keira and her sister, Morgan.

“He was very keen to get us [to play rugby], but he never pushed,” Keira told World Rugby. “He always just said, ‘if you want to play any sport, here’s a sport’.”

Mum Suzy added with a smile that while extolling the benefits of being part of a team Chris would tell his kids that there was “a really good sport out there, better than all the rest”.

Both Keira and Morgan, two years her sister’s senior and currently playing for Heriot’s Rugby Club having recently moved away from home for university, have heeded their father’s words of advice.

Keira only took up rugby three years ago but her aptitude for the game soon became apparent and she is currently a performance development player, supported by Scottish Rugby (SRU) and Sportscotland.

This week the 16-year-old was also confirmed as a World Rugby Youth Unstoppable, something she admitted was “quite a weird feeling”. “I wasn’t really expecting it,” Keira added.

“It looked like good fun”

Modest she may be, but Keira is fully deserving of the accolade having overcome challenges both on and off the pitch to become an infectious ambassador for her beloved sport.

It was actually her sister Morgan who was the first daughter to head down to Caithness RFC in Thurso. Keira, who was 12 at the time, was initially unsure whether rugby was the game for her.

Thurso is the northernmost town on mainland Scotland, and Caithness’ players must travel on average eight hours just to play matches or attend tournaments.

Keira, who was diagnosed with autism as a young child, finds social situations difficult and the long bus journeys to matches were a concern. 

However, a year spent on the sidelines supporting her sister alongside her dad gave her the confidence to put on a pair of boots and head out onto the pitch.

“It just looked like good fun,” Keira said. “They all would be laughing around in the changing rooms and then they'd go, they'd get focused and everyone was very calm and collected on the pitch.

“It just looked like a good load of fun, so I thought I'd go try a game.”

Keira’s decision would prove to be a successful one as she found a family at Caithness, while becoming an integral member of the team and scoring a try in a cup final only a few months later.

Caithness coach, Sinclair Dunnett was “exceptionally supportive” in that first season, going the extra mile to adapt feedback and giving Keira time to settle into the squad.

“She had an amazing first season,” mum Suzy said. “She got New Start Player of the Year. 

“From going from nothing to at the end of the season she was playing outside Murrayfield in the Shield Cup and she was playing in the Caledonian Cup final, and she scored a try in the Caley Cup final! 

“For her first season I thought that was just phenomenal, especially as, you know, beforehand she was unsure.”

Thriving on and off the pitch

But, it is not only on the pitch that the game has had an impact on Keira’s life. 

“I'm not very good at social situations,” she said. “So, rugby really helped me with getting to know more people.”

According to her mum, rugby has given Keira a structure within which she feels comfortable and confident.

“Keira's an exceptionally bright, capable young woman who could do anything that she wants but socially it's difficult,” Suzy said.

“[Rugby] allowed Keira to socialise in a structure which was quite clear cut. Keira could learn from that, she can watch how other people interact and what other people were doing and saying as well. 

“And, that gave Keira clues as to the sort of next stages and how to respond to things.”

Keira hopes the next stage of her own rugby journey will contain representative honours with Scotland.

She has been unable to play this year due to a knee injury, but has received tailored physio and strength and conditioning support through her association with the SRU and Sportscotland.

Earlier this year, meanwhile, Keira had the opportunity to speak to one of her rugby heroes, Scotland scrum-half Jenny Maxwell, who had recently returned from a similar injury and gave her advice on how to approach her rehabilitation.

“She gave me lots of really good pointers, like to head on to the training sessions just to go have a conversation with the team and just set yourself little goals,” Keira said.

“Set yourself little goals every day. Even if they’re not that big, they'll still be a good achievement.”

Passing on her passion

Keira’s sports and conditioning coach, Kenny Russell is certainly confident she will one day wear dark blue alongside Morgan. “I’m going to have [coached] two sisters playing for Scotland,” he has told them.

Should the sisters go on to achieve that then Keira will emulate another one of her favourite players, Poppy Cleall, who has represented England alongside sibling, Bryony.

“She's very strong on the pitch and very dominant in her tackles,” she said about the Red Roses number eight. 

“She's always getting through the line and she's always really good on the pitch.”

Keira thinks it is important that the women’s game is more visible as it will help convince more girls that they can play the game too.

She already takes an interest in nurturing the new recruits who arrive at Caithness, passing on her enthusiasm for the game and helping younger players bed in.

“It's just giving them confidence so that they'll know what they need to do, what they need to expect,” she said. “It'll help them to try their best.”

Does Keira have any advice for young women and girls who might be thinking about picking up an oval ball?

“Head to your local team,” she said. “Give it a go and just try your best with it!”

Women and girls of the Highlands, what are you waiting for?

It should come as little surprise that Keira is forging such a successful path in rugby given dad Chris is an oval ball-obsessed former front-row forward.

However, it was not until sister Morgan joined Caithness RFC that Keira gained the confidence to give the game a try herself.

Keira spent a year supporting her sister from the sidelines, gaining an understanding both of rugby and the team-mates she would soon play alongside.

“It just looked like good fun,” she says when reminiscing about the decision to lace up a pair of boots for the first time when she was 13.

Keira has become an integral member of the Caithness family over the past three years and her aptitude for the game also ensured her selection as a performance development player, supported by Scottish Rugby and Sportscotland.

And, it is not only on the pitch that rugby has had a transformative impact on Keira. Diagnosed with autism as a young child, the 16-year-old finds social situations difficult but the game has provided her with a structure in which she thrives.

Her weekends are now devoted to rugby and she can often be found at Caithness passing on her love of the game to new recruits, or embarking on mammoth bus journeys from the northernmost club on mainland Scotland to play in matches and tournaments.

Keira has grand ambitions for her future career too, and is determined to emulate both of her rugby heroes — Scotland’s Jenny Maxwell and England’s Poppy Cleall — in winning international honours, preferably alongside sister Morgan!

Last updated: Apr 7, 2022, 2:26:39 PM
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