It was while chairing a meeting between Rugby Nederland and its constituent clubs that Annelies Acda took the decision to apply for World Rugby’s Women’s Executive Leadership Scholarship programme.

Scanning the room, the former Netherlands international centre noticed one thing: the faces staring back at her were almost exclusively male.

“There were 30 people and there were two women – me and another union official,” Acda said. 

“Just by the way the conversations were going I thought ‘We are totally not representative, so something needs to be done’. 

“I happen to be in a position where I might create a few waves, but I need help. 

“I can’t do it by myself and I thought this scholarship would provide me with the opportunity to create a few more waves, or stronger waves.”

Promoting rugby

Acda, who was introduced to rugby while living in the English city of Worcester, has been on the Rugby Nederland Board for three years and also sits on the women’s committee at Rugby Europe.

She became aware of the scholarship when listening to World Rugby’s General Manager of Women’s Rugby Katie Sadleir, at the inaugural European Women’s Rugby International Leadership Forum in Madrid last November.

Her aim is to use the programme to help improve her leadership skills in order, ultimately, to promote rugby, its core values and its ability to tackle a range of social issues.

“When I look at and talk to women [their passion for rugby] is about being stronger than you think you are, it’s about friendship – which is the same for men possibly – but also about body positivity,” Acda explained. 

“Women and girls nowadays are in a world filled with Instagram images of what you should be like and look like, but it’s about what you can do with your body and how you can do something that somebody else can’t and the other way around, and you can compensate and work for each other in a team.

“As a woman sometimes you can feel vulnerable but rugby has this attitude, you know. 

“You know what your body can do and you know you’re strong. 

Honour and responsibility

“You’re not invincible but you’re stronger than you think and you’re suddenly part of a group of women that say ‘Listen, we are doing it regardless of what you think’.”

Although Acda is clear-sighted about what she wants to achieve through her scholarship now, the first few months have not all been plain sailing.

She admits to suffering from a “paralysis of analysis” as the size of the task in front of her became apparent once the recipients were announced in March.

“I was proud but also a bit overwhelmed to be honest, because it’s quite an honour but also it feels like a bit of responsibility,” Acda admitted. 

“It is a good thing but, you know, even though it is a scholarship that is personal and it’s for your own personal development, it also feels like it is something that you want to live up to that. You want to do it justice.”

Acda sought the advice of a life coach as she attempted to plan the year ahead while discussions with her mentor, New Zealand Rugby Chief Rugby Officer Nigel Cass, Sadleir and Anne Grumelard at World Rugby, Rugby Europe’s Jose Gorrotxategui and her husband proved invaluable. 

“I’m using this opportunity as a learning curve, and step one is trying to find out what my questions are behind the scholarship,” she said. 

Invest in the long-term

“What do I need to learn to kick down doors effectively to make those waves but create a community at the same time? How do I function on a board that is male dominated? How do I take leadership whereas professionally I’m an advisor? So, what does leadership mean for me? 

“And it’s an ongoing process. So it started with the application, then with receiving it I thought ‘holy sh*t, I really need to start doing this now – I need to take this seriously and then start all the conversations’. 

“I’ve had countless conversations with lots of people about leadership and it’s shaping me and my actions.

“It’s like you get a lot of birthday money but you want to spend it wisely, so you’re not going to the sales and buying everything cheap. 

“You want to really invest it in something that is a long-term thing.”

The Dutch union could well prove to be a sensible long-term investment. The women’s game in particular has enjoyed impressive growth in the past few years.

“We are one of the few team sports in the Netherlands that is still growing,” Acda said.

Huge potential for social impact

“We’ve got 16,500 members, around half youth, but the growth comes from youth and women, and it’s still growing per the last year, 13 per cent more women. Over five years about a 50 per cent growth for women. 

“So, that’s pretty substantial and that also is one of the challenges that we have, of managing that growth. Because we need pitches, we need local board members, we need trainers, we need referees, we need team managers, we need first aid people that know about concussion.

“I think there’s a huge potential for the rugby values and even in an adapted way, the sport when you play it. Not just to grow the game but to grow the individuals that participate in it.”

In June, Acda returned to Rugby Nederland HQ in Amsterdam to discuss her scholarship and what it meant for the union. The response she was met with should help convince her she is on the right path.

“We had our Annual General Meeting,” Acda said. “All the clubs were present, and I showed them the World Rugby plans and the ‘Try And Stop Us’ campaign and the whole movement, and it was rewarded with applause, which was really nice because they’re a critical bunch. 

“And I said ‘I’ll take you guys with me’. Of course, they’re investing in me but I don’t want to do this by myself because I don’t have the time. 

“So, basically it will help me to mobilise more people to get this social impact that I’m really looking for.”

Photo: SJM Photography