Kirby Sefo was in contention to represent Australia at Rugby World Cup 2021 when injury brought a premature end to her playing career in February. Unemployed, the former Wallaroo poured her energy into creating a programme to help young women on and off the pitch.
Disaster struck seven months ago when, playing for the Queensland Reds in Super W, Sefo picked up the ball at the back of a maul and collapsed under the weight of two props.
The impact of the fall left the back-row with both a broken eye socket and nose, and she subsequently needed to have metal plates inserted into her face.
On medical advice, Sefo called time on her playing career, a decision which capped a miserable couple of months. In December, 2019, the 32-year-old had been let go from her job as a Female Participation and Communications Officer at Sunnybank Rugby.
Sefo found herself with time on her hands, but she had already been working on an idea that has morphed into Subbed, an organisation that uses sport to encourage women to talk about social issues.
“It's a not-for-profit organisation for young females within the ages of 12 to around 24. And we use sport as a vehicle to elevate conversations around health and social issues such as mental health, cultural diversity, sexuality and relationships,” Sefo told World Rugby.
“The connection has come from my personal experiences as a professional and semi-professional athlete, along with many other women that I speak with.
“And it's literally from the conversations that we have [that] creates content and a resource for the Sub Her In programme, which is a community-based programme to go into schools, inject into sporting organisations and the workplace.”
‘I couldn’t speak about it’
Sefo’s desire to equip young women with the tools to talk about issues such as mental health stems from her own experiences as a player.
Check out the work of Wallaroo and former Queensland captain, Kirby Sefo with SUBBED. SUBBED aims to provide inspiration and guidance for women to overcome barriers.— Wallaroos (@WallaroosRugby) July 14, 2020
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In 2014, she became one of the first Australian women to be awarded a professional contract to play sevens. Having struggled with that tag, as well as the relocation from Queensland to Sydney and the living costs that entailed, Sefo was diagnosed with depression and heightened anxiety.
She found it difficult to discuss her mental health with her peers, and ended up walking away from the national team after just one HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series tournament appearance.
“It was nothing to do with the organisation and playing under Rugby Australia,” Sefo explained.
“There just weren't things in place at that time that could cater for women developing or evolving into a professional realm.”
She added: “It doesn't matter if you're male or female, it's a difficult situation to be faced with because, of course, you want to be performing and you want to be in contention for selection and to be on tour and to be contracted.
“Essentially, it's your job, and so anything that might compromise it isn't always easy to discuss. And given the stigmas placed around something like depression, I definitely found it difficult. I lived with team-mates and I couldn't speak about it.”
Creating a safe space
It was after Sefo had moved back to Queensland and was working with young girls in her development role at her club, Sunnybank, that she first had the idea for Subbed.
“I gained a much more heightened awareness of where these issues started to begin — those early teenage years,” she said.
“My concern [is] with the girls that aren't in high performance programmes, and to me sport seemed like a really good and a safe space.
“It's a good place for them to be involved in sport with good relationships, healthy relationships and seeing them in club rugby and at school.
“The reason I extended it out to the early 20s was, again, because these girls were coming out of school [and] school had a lot of structure and a lot of routine, and they were sort of falling away.
“So, if you're able to keep them involved in sport, again, it seemed like a safe place, safe environment and an opportunity to inject something like Subbed to help out.”
Sefo’s programme is deliverable on a one-off, three-week or six-week basis and she had received interest in pilot schemes from schools in the Brisbane area prior to the outbreak of COVID-19.
Those plans have now been shelved until the new year, but progress has continued to be made with a Subbed podcast, featuring interviews with female sportswomen, launched in June.
“My biggest hope is that it would be the most sought-after programme not just for young women in sport, but just young women in general,” Sefo concluded.
“If we can create good people, then we'll be able to create great players.”