It is perhaps unsurprising that Sally Horrox describes her first five months at World Rugby as a “whirlwind”.

Horrox was no stranger to the game on becoming World Rugby’s Director of Women’s Rugby at the beginning of May, but she admits she has been on a steep learning curve since.

Having witnessed first-hand the platform Rugby World Cup Sevens 2022 provided the world’s best players in Cape Town, Horrox will arrive in New Zealand this week for Rugby World Cup 2021. She believes the showpiece 15s tournament can have a transformational impact across Oceania and beyond.

“To have two Rugby World Cups in my first six months is quite remarkable,” Horrox told World Rugby.

“It's been pretty fast paced and really exciting. Hard work, but I'm enjoying it.”

Opportunity for growth

Horrox joined World Rugby with an impressive CV, having contributed heavily to the success of both the Vitality Netball Super League and the FA Women’s Super League.

What attracted her to the opportunity to succeed Katie Sadleir at World Rugby was the potential for similar growth she believed was possible for women in rugby. She has been encouraged to discover her instincts were correct.

“I could see a tremendous growth opportunity for the sport,” Horrox added.

“So, coming on board and getting the chance to meet a lot of people, talk  to the union and get out and about I have had the reassurance that that opportunity is there.

“I've met some great people, there's real energy and passion for the development of the women's game.

“The leadership within World Rugby and those union chief executives that I've met, and our board members, have all confirmed that to me.

“We say in our strategy that the women and girls’ game is one of the strongest drivers of growth for the world game. I've certainly found that to be the case.”

Grassroots experience

Although her previous sporting success has come primarily in football and netball, Horrox is certainly no rugby novice.

Living in what she describes as the “golden triangle” between Gloucester, Exeter, Bath and Bristol, Horrox admits she is surrounded by the game and is a long-time fan and volunteer.

She has travelled the world watching rugby, including on British and Irish Lions tours, and has filled various support roles at her local club, Bradford on Avon RFC.

“My husband was a player and a coach, and our kids play, so I’ve seen it from a family perspective,” Horrox said.

“As a parent, I’ve seen our children come right the way up through the youth pathway and supported that and I’ve volunteered in our local rugby club. From working behind the bar, to being the tour manager on a junior tour to Toulon.

“So, I've had a lot of fun with the game, but I have never worked in it professionally in a paid role.”

Watching her son and one of her three daughters play junior rugby, Horrox has witnessed first-hand the challenges the women and girls’ game faces at a grassroots level.

“It became very apparent to me that there were a lot of girls that wanted to play, but there was very little provision for them,” she said.

“So, I saw some amazing parents and volunteer coaches then step in and start to create an environment that was friendly and welcoming for girls as they took them into mixed junior and youth rugby.

“Over the years, really through the dedication of those volunteers, who paid particular attention to the girls, the club really grew.

“It became a thriving girls’ section [because] they really paid attention to what made the environment fun, safe and welcoming to those young women.”

Horrox added: “Over [the last] 10 years it's grown tremendously and there's so much more choice now, and opportunity, and the leagues have grown because as the clubs grow, the competitive game grows.”

Raising the profile

The challenge now facing Horrox is how best to build on the impact of World Rugby’s Women in Rugby 2017-25 plan, which was refreshed late last year, and help reignite that growth post-pandemic.

As she ponders how best to do that, Horrox says her experience in football, in particular, gives her the belief that with hard work and investment great things can be achieved.

“We have to raise the profile of the game and change perceptions,” she explained. “We have to help people to understand that rugby is a game for girls and women to play, to work in, to earn a living in, or just to be a fan that wants to come and support.

“That requires quite a lot of work, and it doesn't happen overnight. The visibility piece is really important because that then drives demand.

“The next part is you then have to link that and give the signposting and the access to those girls so that when they see it, they know where to go to play – and that requires not just good signposting, but investment.

“We also need to up our levels of investment, because what we've talked about so far is community rugby where there are many volunteers, they are the lifeblood of the game. But you also need facilities, you also need investment in infrastructure and ultimately you need some paid personnel to run these great clubs, leagues, competitions, and regions around the world.”

Horrox added: “To prop all of that up at the elite level, we need to fast track the professional and commercial development of the game that takes us from that grassroots pathway through the age grades right the way up.

“So, girls and women can see their route through to realising their full potential and playing for their national teams or on an international stage, which is where we come in with WXV and Rugby World Cup Sevens and 15s.

“But if we don't invest and support the development of those great professional competitions and the commercial, media and brand partnerships that will be needed to fund them, then the standard of the game is not going to improve because those women need to be playing the sport day in, day out, week in, week out.

“That is expensive, that needs funding. I think we're probably 10 years behind where football was, but I think we can fast track it.”