Katie Sadleir may have led a successful sporting career in the pool, but her Kiwi heritage ensured that rugby was always on the cards. “Obviously anyone who comes from New Zealand has a bit of an affinity to rugby,” she told Sean Maloney, on the latest episode of Between the Lines.

A synchronised swimmer, Sadleir represented New Zealand at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles and was a bronze medallist at the 1986 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh. She admits to never playing rugby growing up, but believes she got close to it through water polo: “That was my rugby experience in the water,” laughed Sadleir.

After calling it a day in the pool, Sadleir began a successful 25-year career in high performance sport management in New Zealand. Then, after a brief time away from the sporting world, Sadleir was approached to work for World Rugby as General Manager of Women’s Rugby, a role she began in January 2017. 

“I looked at what was going on around rugby. I saw the amazing stuff that came out of the Olympics and I thought ‘who wouldn’t want to be part of this?’ So I put my name in the hat and here I am.

“It’s one of those dream jobs. When people ask me what I do you can’t but smile.”

One of Sadleir’s main objectives entering the role was to ensure that the growth of women’s rugby was a priority for people across the global organisation.

“The first thing that I did was work very closely with the executive at World Rugby to say ‘we’re not going to develop a women’s sport unit’.

“The delivery of women’s rugby has accountability across the whole organisation, there’s not a group of people. And I think that sometimes surprises people, because as a global organisation we’re really rocking it in terms of the things we’re trying to change and transform.

“We went from having not a single woman on the World Rugby Council – we were governed by 30 men – to bringing on 17 directors. So that was like a big ‘hey, it’s game on. We mean business’. And that started a whole bunch of other changes around what we’re trying to achieve.”

The rise of the unstoppables

One of Sadleir’s proudest achievements in her role to date is ‘Try and Stop Us’, a global campaign to drive increased participation and engagement among fans, audiences, players and investors in the women’s game. The campaign shared the stories of 15 ‘unstoppable’ women and girls involved in rugby at all levels of the game from around the world, and has gone on to fulfill its core purpose.

“It’s a very special campaign,” said Sadleir. “We had something like nine million people looking at the hero video of Sweta [Shahi, India sevens player] in the first three months.

“The work that India is doing in terms of women’s rugby in Asia, I think something like 45 per cent of their participants are women. Iran went from 3,500 to 10,000 women involved in rugby in almost every province in Iran, pre and post that campaign.

“Women’s rugby and certainly women in rugby is on the rise.”

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