How the Rugby Black List is celebrating diversity to show the sport is for all

The second edition of the Rugby Black List Awards was held at Twickenham this week to recognise individuals from across the sport

Harry Latham-Coyle
Thursday 02 May 2024 23:20 BST
The Rugby Black List are working to create a more inclusive sport
The Rugby Black List are working to create a more inclusive sport (Rugby Black List)

On Tuesday evening, the doors to Twickenham were thrown open in celebration of progress made and recognition of the work yet to be done. Even after a groundbreaking launch at the House of Lords last year, the second edition of the Rugby Black List Awards raised the bar, the great and the good of the sport packing out Lock 5 in the East Stand of the home of English rugby.

“It’s to celebrate and amplify the positive work, involvement and activity that people from the Black community do in rugby,” the organisation’s founder Sagan Daniels explains to The Independent. “There is diversity [in the sport] but it’s not seen, and it’s not given the amplification it needs. There will be people who have been involved in the game for 20, 30 years, but do we actually know about them? Are they getting the recognition that they deserve.”

A long-time community coach and charity worker, Daniels and his team of volunteers have driven the development of the event with support from the Rugby Football Union (RFU) and a number of key partners. Formed after a number of conversations with Leon Mann, co-founder of the Football Black List, Daniels wanted to create something that “shines a light on and celebrates” those involved in the sport.

“This probably came out after the murder of George Floyd,” Daniels continues. “[There was] lots of reflection and catharsis about what was going on in communities nationally and internationally.

Many of rugby’s top figures attended the second edition of the Rugby Black List awards
Many of rugby’s top figures attended the second edition of the Rugby Black List awards (Rugby Black List)

“Rather than being negative and detrimental to wider society, actually let’s flip it on its head and do something that celebrates and is more positive. Rugby was right for it: it needed an understanding that it wasn’t just a Barbour-wearing, Guinness-swigging thing. It was for all echelons of British society.”

The awards span the depth and breadth of the game, spotlighting vital community initiatives as well as top performing elite players. Sharifa Kasolo and Asher Opoku-Fordjour were rewarded for breakthrough seasons in the PWR and Premiership respectively, while Southwark Tigers RFC were recognised for vital work providing facilities, kit and access to kids from inner London over the last 25 years. Recipients of the Life in Sport prize included Martin Offiah and, to a standing ovation, Ralph Knibbs, who turned down an England call-up for a tour to South Africa during apartheid.

Daniels is keen to note the backing the RFU have given the venture. The governing body launched its first inclusion and diversity action plan in 2021, while the testimony of former England centre Luther Burrell and other players of their experiences of racism and classism in the sport have accelerated ongoing work to broaden the game.

“The way the RFU look at it is we want to expand the game at all levels,” explains Tom Ilube, appointed as the union’s first Black chair in 2021. “That means growing power in the traditional base but it also means bringing in people from other communities.

Tom Ilube is the RFU’s first Black chair
Tom Ilube is the RFU’s first Black chair (RFU)

“You look at the England teams, it’s wonderful to see players from all different backgrounds. The myth of rugby being an exclusive game, or a posh game – look at the backgrounds of the people and players involved. It’s just not like that anymore in reality, even if some people might still have that perception. The more that we can keep on opening it up, the better.”

The women’s game is seen as a crucial driver, too. At a time where adult male participation numbers are falling, Ilube highlights how starting a women’s team can help expand a local club by bringing in new families and communities. The Women’s Six Nations clash with Ireland at Twickenham was again watched by a younger, more diverse audience; it is thought that almost half of those in attendance at last year’s grand slam decider against France were new to the ground.

“I’m really passionate about getting young Black girls into the sport,” England flanker Sadia Kabeya said after the Red Roses’ win over Ireland. “Obviously being from south London and starting to play rugby, I was a bit of an anomaly in the sport. I want to be a voice for young girls.

Sadia Kabeya hopes to be a role model for other young Black girls
Sadia Kabeya hopes to be a role model for other young Black girls (Getty Images)

“There’s lots of differences between the men’s and women’s games. One of the main ones I think is the inclusivity of our fan base. It’s great because it shows the wider representation of the sport that is out there. Rugby is a predominantly white sport but when you see our fan base, you’d never know that. It’s so accepting.”

Despite a night of such positivity, there is an appreciation that there is still more to be done. In November, pundit Ugo Monye was racially abused by a spectator at Sandy Park, while a former RFU council member was banned for using a racial slur at Twickenham. Representation in the media and administration is still lacking, while a report last April found that players had experienced some form of racism “in every area of elite rugby”.

But Daniels is hopeful for the future. “The big thing from the House of Lords event was that these places can seem quite stuffy and rigid in their approaches, but if you fill them with people that are just there for a connected, shared reason, it is just a brilliant vibe and energy. It’s brilliant to see people mingling and having conversations they wouldn’t normally have.

Rugby Black List founder Sagan Daniels is hopeful for the future
Rugby Black List founder Sagan Daniels is hopeful for the future (Getty Images)

“In British society, there is always bound to be racism. It’s not a problem just for rugby, it’s a societal problem. But what the antidote to that is if we can change that narrative and amplify the positive things it does, those sticky conversations can be brought to the forefront.

“When we aren’t having the conversations about it, that’s when we will have achieved the objectives. We should always really reflect the mirror back to us and say, ‘are we as inclusive as possible? Are we as inclusive as possible to neurodiverse people, the LGBTQ+ community?’ Once we can be really representative of British society, then I will be happy to put my feet up, kick back and relax.”

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