Going Your Own Way with Stef Evans
“I needed a sport like rugby, where I could be physical and confrontational and big and that would be cool.” We talk to the athlete and entrepreneur about why contact makes sense to her and why she will always fight back
Things didn’t easily slot into place for Stef Evans, but when they did, there was no stopping her. The rugby player and entrepreneur grew up in Regina, Saskatchewan – an agricultural town where she loved to spend her early and teen years riding horses and just generally being outdoors. School sports proved to be a difficult arena: as a tall girl she frequently found herself ‘in the way’. When she eventually discovered rugby, it was a revelation and changed her life, giving her a confidence she’d never had. After finishing school she moved to Calgary and worked in the showjumping world, learning about business. And then later, as an equestrian retail buyer, she discovered that she had a natural aptitude for the skill. This progressed to her starting Ruggette RFC, her own business supplying women’s rugby kit. There’s now no stopping her, on and off the pitch. Stef talks to Glorious about overcoming her personal hurdles, how she manages her life, and what she would like to see happen in the women’s game to ensure its future.
Glorious: What did you like about your early years in Canada?
Stef Evans: Generally I’ve just always loved being outdoors. I was always up a tree or building a fort or in a pond catching frogs and sneaking them into the house, which I would get grounded for. My mother didn’t like frogs in the house!
Glorious: How did you start to get involved in your business?
Stef Evans: After school, I moved to Calgary to work in the showjumping industry, and I learned a lot about running a business through that. I learned about buying and managing supplies on a big scale (horses go through a lot of stuff in not that much time), catering to clientele, understanding cash flow and asset protection, booking travel for people and animals and equipment. It was a great job for a young person, especially someone like me, who didn’t have any idea what sort of adult they wanted to be. It was hard but I loved it and learned so much. Through that experience I transitioned to working as a retail buyer in the equestrian world, and that gave me the foundations to start Ruggette RFC. I learned about how a product comes to market, how the back end of apparel works and learned I was a good buyer. I could tell what would sell well based on how it fit, or felt, or how well it understood its audience.
It seemed really straightforward and logical to me, and I realised that I was a bit unique in how I evaluated products and understood my market. I gained a lot of confidence in that role; I knew I would work hard and keep showing up, but after finding that success as a buyer I started to trust my intelligence on the same level as I did my effort.
Glorious: When and how did you discover rugby and what do you love so much about the sport?
Stef Evans: I started playing in high school. I think I was about 14 years old. I really wanted to play sport in school, to be a part of a team, but I hadn’t found one that felt like it wanted me there. I really enjoyed a lot of the out of school pursuits like horse riding and kayaking, but I still really wanted to have a school sport to be good at. I felt like it was a part of the school experience I was missing out on. I’d tried lots, such as (American) football with the boys and remember accidentally running into one of them whilst intercepting their pass, and being shouted at for “not controlling myself”.
Rugby made me realise that I wasn’t the problem, I had just been trying to succeed in the wrong spaces. I have always been a big person, I’m 5ft 11ins and was tall throughout my teens, and big. I’ve never been someone who avoids anything, my first instinct is always to fight back. If something moves towards me, I move back towards it. It never occurs to me to duck or evade.
As an adult, I can look back at all of that school sport experience and realise that a kid like me just needed a sport like rugby, where I could be physical and confrontational and big and that would be cool, not a problem to overcome. Girls don’t have as many spaces like that as boys do. I think it’s a similar feeling for boys who dance or like activities that were traditionally considered feminine. Girls need more places to be allowed to hit things, and boys need more places to be allowed not to hit things, that’s my political platform if I ever run for office!
Glorious: Is the team aspect of rugby important to you after living in so many different countries and cities?
Stef Evans: Absolutely. I took a few years away from rugby in my twenties, and what got me back into it was living in a new place and knowing I could meet people and probably have an instant friend group if I started playing again – and I did. There really is something magical about a rugby team in that way, different from other sports, especially at the grassroots level. You might not be best friends with everyone you play with, you certainly won’t have everything in common with all of your teammates, but something bonds you when you train and play rugby together. Maybe it’s because it’s such a difficult, tiring sport. It’s a huge undertaking, especially for amateur athletes in the grassroots leagues, and I think being willing to prepare for a game and playing the games themselves shows a lot of character. It’s cheesy, but rugby is a family. We go way beyond recreational sports acquaintances… it’s weird really. Weird and magic and lovely.
Glorious: How do you juggle a full-time job whilst maintaining such a high level of athleticism?
Stef Evans: I won’t lie, it’s really hard. I’m playing in the Premiership, running my company, have two coaching roles and fit in speaking/pundit work when I can. Playing now takes more than ever, plus there’s the training and gym. We really are professional in every sense other than all of us getting a living wage from playing. I really love what I do and I feel incredibly lucky that I get to do it; there isn’t a day that I don’t think about how unreal it is that I’m alive in this part of women’s rugby history, and able to be a part of it in a number of different capacities. But it takes absolutely all of me. I’m not sure when I last had a full day off, much less a weekend. I don’t really do much outside of work, I see friends when there’s time but it’s tough in season.
I don’t really feel like I’m missing out on a lot, though. I understand that right now, I have to be busy. Everything I do to work, for everything I’m building, requires investment, and I don’t mind making it. I like my schedule, I love training and being in the training environment. I love the routine, the gym, the pitch sessions and building to game day. At the risk of sounding super nerdy, I love this chapter of my life. I know it won’t last forever, but I’m having a really great time whilst I can.
Glorious: How has support for women’s rugby differed between all the countries you’ve lived in?
Stef Evans: In my experience, it’s pretty tied to how established rugby is as a whole in that space. In North America, the player support is really low, comparatively, but it’s less jarring as the men also aren’t supported very well either. Of course, that’s changing, especially recently with the amount of investment and marketing that’s gone into the MLR (Major League Rugby) in the US the past few years, it’s getting a bigger platform. It’s a shame that platform and investment wasn’t replicated with the WPL (Women’s Premier League), as that’s been established and running for much longer, but who’s surprised there. Anyways, it’s certainly growing in the US in general, but it’s just not as established compared to in the UK.
When I was playing in Canada and the US, I would have to explain what rugby is. No one really expects you to play professionally or anything. Here in the UK, the player support is on a whole other level. To be able to play in a professional set up, with full time coaching staff and medical, and top quality facilities, it’s like stepping into a different world. And most everyone knows rugby here, or has even played it. I’ll get asked if we play in the same stadiums as the men, or if it’s fully pro, and sometimes people will assume I’m earning a living wage just from playing for my club. I really like it when that happens, because it reminds me that for some people, that seems like a safe assumption to make, they’re comfortable assuming that a female athlete is earning a living from her sport. There’s been so much progress made, but it’s still a key point of a lot of the random rugby conversations here. It’s pretty interesting, really.
Glorious: You are the founder of Ruggette that provides women’s rugby kit. Tell us how the company was born and what’s next for the brand?
Stef Evans: I started it because I wanted to solve a problem for female players. I wanted to make kit that fits us, rugby shorts that I actually wanted to wear. It baffled me that it didn’t exist, and it made me a bit mad so I decided to do something about it instead of just complaining.
Glorious: You featured in the successful documentary film No Woman No Try, which speaks to the inclusiveness of rugby. How important was this to you when you first got into the sport – regarding issues with body image/bullying?
Stef Evans: I touched on this earlier I know, but feeling welcome and valuable as I am was huge for me. I had never experienced any sport or activity or anything physical before that didn’t want to change me in some way. Rugby was the first place where I didn’t feel like there was something really wrong with me; it gave me the ability to see that I was looking at myself through frames that didn’t fit.
Humans invent so many sports and activities, and we always have, because we all need to do and play and create and make, and since everyone is different, there needs to be variation. We need options so we can all find those spaces for ourselves that fit. Rugby is so empowering for women because we don’t have many options like it, especially team-based options. I’m big, I’m strong and I like physicality – contact makes sense to me.
If it hadn’t been rugby, what would it have been? I really don’t know. I think everyone needs to have somewhere they can feel like they’re in a place that they’re meant to be. The change rugby made in my life stretched way beyond sport, I don’t think I would be able to stand up for myself the way that I do now professionally, in my career outside of playing itself. I’m tougher and more confident, which is something I have always struggled with. But most importantly, I’m able to look at situations and opportunities and evaluate if they work for me and decide if I want to do them or not with a clearer frame of reference. Rugby gave me that frame of reference, I would not be the person I am today without that.
Glorious: What is the hardest part about being an advocate for change within women’s sport and what is the biggest barrier to women’s rugby receiving the recognition you think it deserves?
Stef Evans: Feeling like I’m shouting into an abyss sometimes is probably the hardest part. I don’t always feel like that, certainly a lot less now than I did before, but it’s so frustrating to be speaking about something that’s logical and straightforward, and have it fall on deaf ears because the people can’t park their pre-existing feeling about women’s sport as a market. Women’s rugby has all the indicators of massive potential market growth; millions of women play and that number grows every day. It’s the only reason rugby as a sport is growing globally.
Glorious: What are the crucial differences between the women’s and men’s sport?
Stef Evans: Women have a much different consumer relationship with their interests and hobbies, especially anything that’s sport or wellness related. Women still control the majority of household purchasing decisions. All the market indicators are there, and still you hear decision makers pushing back against doing even the bare minimum. So many people want to hold women’s rugby to a standard that men’s rugby has never been held to, they expect it to make money before money is invested into it, and it’s just laughably backwards. Do they think men’s rugby made money right out of the gate? Hell, do they think it makes money right now? For some people and places, sure it does, but that’s been a result of investment, and it’s pretty clear now that money isn’t consistently made in the men’s game, just look at the list of debt some clubs are carrying. Men’s rugby isn’t this money-making machine that people want to pretend it is, and everything that it is today has been a result of years of investment, support and infrastructure. Plus there’s the marketing, packaging, live entertainment, TV coverage, sponsorship and development and years of posting a loss.
Pro sport is a business, and you have to build those, they don’t just fall into your lap fully formed, posting profit from the go. Women’s rugby deserves to be invested in the way that men’s rugby was, and we have the advantage of learning from the mistakes made there, and do it better, in the age of social media too. It’s what we deserve but it’s also what rugby as a sport needs; as early as 1997, men’s pro rugby not making itself inclusive to women and families was understood to be a key factor in the return on investment not coming back the way it was expected to. Men’s participation numbers have been in decline for years, whilst ours are on the rise.
Women and families are more likely to want to come to our games and support us. You don’t have to be a genius to understand how big an opportunity women’s rugby is for the wider community, and yet there are still so many people in decision making spaces who want to talk about if we sell as many tickets, if the women’s dues bring it that much, if the women’s sponsors pay as much. Women’s rugby is rugby as a whole’s ‘get out of jail free card’ from mistakes it’s made for years, and it absolutely baffles me why anyone would want to look this gift horse in the mouth.
Glorious: You are also behind the #ICare movement. Do you think the Six Nations coming to Twickenham next year will be a big milestone for growing support for women’s rugby in the UK?
Stef Evans: Absolutely. It’s so exciting, I am really looking forward to seeing it unfold, and I really hope it’s presented the way it deserves to be. There’s no reason that the women can’t sell out Twickenham, and that tournament and those games need to be supported and marketed and presented on the level that they deserve. Professional sports is an entertainment piece first, and an activity second. It needs to be produced. Patrons need hospitality. I would love to see live music at half-time shows, or kids matches, or both. Pregame entertainment, things for the kids to do before the game and at the half, food selection and all of that. I’m really hoping it gets that, because the matches themselves are going to deserve good crowds.
I get annoyed when a women’s game, in any sport, gets to a break in play and there aren’t additional camera angles other than zoomed all the way out, or no replay, or nothing happening. Keeping people entertained is the highest priority, it’s disrespectful to women’s sport when we don’t have that support. My games don’t have a halftime show, and that makes them less engaging to the viewer as they could be. How is anyone watching supposed to find it entertaining? The product itself, the game play, is growing leaps and bounds but that can’t be the only thing that we rely on for growth and support.
Glorious: You wear so many different hats and have achieved many great things. What are you most proud of?
Stef Evans: I’m definitely proud of my company, for starting it in the first place and to have it be a success. I’m very proud of my playing career as well; to play at this level is difficult. I’m proud of myself for chasing this crazy dream and not giving up on it. If we’re going to pick out what makes me the proudest, though, I think it would be for learning to trust myself, and live my life on my own terms. I spent a long time not liking myself, I struggled for many years with eating disorders and body image issues. I came out very late in life, I spent a long time trying to be a version of myself I couldn’t sustain. Only recently did I start explaining my ADHD to people and standing up for myself when people or situations aren’t respectful or considerate. I think if young me met me now, she would think I’m pretty cool.
Glorious: Outside of rugby, what are your other interests, what do you do to relax?
Stef Evans: I’ve got the world’s cutest dog! I know everyone thinks that about their own, but it’s actually just a fact. I love hanging out with her and doing dog stuff, going for hikes and finding pretty spots out in nature. She’s getting a little older now, so we don’t go as far or as fast as we used to, but she’s been my adventuring buddy for a long, long time. I like creating things, I do a lot of DIY around the house, building and tinkering and painting and whatever. I like working with my hands and making art, mostly digital drawing these days but I love sculpting when I have an idea and some clay. I’ve got a lot of plants, indoor and outdoor and I love digging around in dirt and making stuff grow.
I don’t really have the best work life balance in the traditional sense of the term. As I couldn’t think of what else to say here I asked my girlfriend what I do to relax, and she said “You don’t, you just do more. If you had more time, you would just find a new project.” I swear I am rather fun at parties, despite that statement! I think it’s probably an ADHD thing, I love being busy and I’m always getting interested in something new. I really am happiest when I’m doing a bit too much as long as I remember to get enough sleep.
Glorious: What rugby legacy do you hope to leave?
Stef Evans: Everyone says this but I do hope that I leave the proverbial jersey better than I found it. In some way. I think I will. I hope that I can show women and girls that they can create the change they want to see in their worlds, and that they can create it in more than one way. I’m not going to limit myself to one thing, one adventure, one project, and neither should they. My career in rugby is far from over, and is going to carry on long after I hang my boots up, whenever that is, and will come with a whole new set of challenges I’m sure… but how exciting is that! How good is it to have so much to look forward to.
Editorial Design by this is root
Documentary Film No Woman No Try – Directed by Victoria H Rush Produced by Victoria H Rush and Jack Tompkins Director of Photography Ben Marlow Featuring Zainab Alema, Sue Anstiss, Shaunagh Brown, Stef Evans, Ugo Monye and Victoria Rush