By her own admission Katie Sadleir had worked in sport for a “very long time” before the opportunity to join World Rugby presented itself.
A desire to forge a career in sports administration was first piqued while competing for New Zealand in synchronised swimming at the 1984 Olympic Games.
Sadleir served as Assistant Chef de Mission at the 1994 Commonwealth Games and subsequently Sport New Zealand’s Director High Performance, helping the antipodean nation secure a record 18 medals at Rio 2016.
However, aside from a brief consultancy stint with the Hurricanes in 2015, she had minimal practical experience of rugby prior to transporting her life to Dublin to become General Manager for Women’s Rugby just under two and a half years ago.
“Moving into rugby, I’m not a rugby player, I haven’t got any credits in the bank,” Sadleir said.
“I didn’t come in with people saying ‘oh, my goodness in comes Katie Sadleir, rugby extraordinaire’.
“That wasn’t my background so it really was about doing your homework, listening, listening, listening, listening, learning, learning, and understanding what people have done, what they’ve done before and then how can we create a strategy that really embraces what’s possible.”
Her education began before she left New Zealand. Pauline Harrison, a former England Netball chief executive, helped to put Sadleir in touch with Carol Isherwood and her network has grown to include a number of influential women in rugby, as well as football and cricket.
“I was given a couple of names and Carol was one of those,” she said.
“When you arrive, you go looking for a testing board. So I think within a month of being here, she lived in London so I flicked her a note saying ‘Pauline Harrison from New Zealand says I should contact you!’
“I spoke to her and she gave me a couple of names, and it just kind of grew like that. What I found through that process was more and more people were really keen and willing to help.
“I just kind of bounce things off people. So, for example, in the commercial and communications work stream I deliberately set up an advisory board for that area because we had a lot of fast learning [to do].
“So, I went to the chief executives of the major unions and I said ‘look, this is what we’re trying to do in terms of commercial development and marketing. Who within the organisation could help with that?’”
Huge change agenda
Sadleir has also been able to count on the support of World Rugby Chairman Bill Beaumont and Vice-Chairman Agustín Pichot, both of whom sit on the Women’s Advisory Committee chaired by Serge Simon, as well as an internal advisory group of fellow general managers that she set up.
It is that network that enabled her to enact such an ambitious seven-year Women’s Plan at the end of 2017, which aims to provide females involved in rugby with equity both on and off the field through five streams: participation, high performance, leadership, engagement and investment.
In little over a year there have already been some major successes, with registered female playing numbers up 28 per cent globally, 17 seats opened up on the World Rugby Council exclusively for women and 24 Women’s Executive Leadership Scholarships awarded.
“I think the biggest achievement has been how the world has embraced us,” Sadleir said. “We put in some pretty big targets, it’s a huge change agenda.
"If I’m successful in this role this will be the only strategy for women’s rugby. It will just be completely embraced within the World Rugby strategy."
“What’s been really exciting is how quickly the non-traditional rugby nations, that haven’t been involved for so long, have really been fast-tracking some of it.
“So, seeing what’s been going on in countries like India and Iran and in Malaysia and in Uganda. They’re thirsty for success and willing to fast track and catch up, and it’s been really exciting.”
The ultimate goal for Sadleir, and for World Rugby, is to erode the distinction between women’s and men’s rugby so that people talk only about ‘rugby’ whether it is played by a male or female.
“My background’s aquatics, you don’t think about swimming and go ‘ah, it’s a men’s sport or a women’s sport’. You still think about rugby like that,” she explained.
“Getting us to a stage where you just think about rugby and it’s women and men, that would be a real success story.”
Although she jokes it “sounds terrible”, Sadleir is aware that if she is to achieve everything that she intends to ahead of 2025 then a separate strategy, advisory committee and General Manager for the Women's Rugby within World Rugby would become redundant.
Ultimately, though, that is her aim.
“You want to get to the stage where you are a truly diverse organisation that you don’t need to have need to have women’s committees, you don’t need to have a General Manager of Women’s Rugby. I see myself as a change agent, hopefully by the end of this strategic plan there won’t be another,” she said.
“You want to get to the stage where it’s just totally embraced and the decision making reflects both women and men.”
To a degree, that is already happening. Alhambra Nievas became a World Rugby Referee Development Manager, with responsibility for both male and female officials, last September, and Sadleir reiterates that the 17 women that joined the Council are “not responsible for women’s rugby, they’re responsible for rugby”.
It is an area in which she hopes the game’s global governing body can become a world-leader.
“We’ve seen a significant jump in two years but there’s a long way to go in terms of the amount of money that we and the regions and unions commit to growing the game,” Sadleir added.
“And it will just become normal that when you’re looking at your budgets [that] any decisions that you’re making are for women and men, not that ‘if there’s anything left’ conversation.
“If I’m successful in this role this will be the only strategy for women’s rugby. It will just be completely embraced within the World Rugby strategy.”