England flanker who gave up shot putting to become ‘one of the best sevens in world’

Sadia Kabeya’s rugby journey began in a spontaneous, no-frills way. Plucked from a science lesson, aged 12, she was put on a rugby pitch to make up a shortfall in players for the school rugby team and given two simple instructions: run forwards, pass backwards. For someone who was setting county records in shot put at the time, her raw talent was obvious.

From that point onwards, Kabeya was always destined to excel in rugby at Harris City Academy in Croydon, where Bryony Cleall, the Saracens and England prop, would later oversee her development as Kabeya’s PE teacher.  

It was a formative experience that would equip Kabeya to become the ball-wrecking, human tin-opener of a rugby player she is today. Having made her England debut last autumn, the 20-year-old flanker starred in Lougborough’s last-gasp victory over Exeter Chiefs two months ago, scoring her second try at the death to clinch a historic win for her side at Franklins’ Gardens. Scotland’s captain, Rachel Malcolm, has already described Kabeya as “one of the best sevens in the world” while Sarah Hunter, the England captain, reckons Kabeya “definitely doesn’t know how good she is.”

Kabeya snorts when I read out such I praise to her over Zoom and plays down any suggestion that she is an emerging star. “I’ve always been quite a go-with-the-flow person when it comes to rugby,” she says. “I have always done it for enjoyment, but now that I’ve had some game time with England, I’ve started looking towards my future and decided that this – rugby – is definitely something I want to do.”

In another nod to Kabeya’s huge potential, there are parallels between her story and that of former England great Maggie Alphonsi. Not only was 2014 World Cup winner Alphonsi a flanker like Kabeya, she was also inspired into the sport by her school PE teacher and former Wales international, Liza Burgess.

And yet, the odds always seemed skewed against Kabeya. Born to an English-Jamaican mother and Congolese father, rugby was hardly on her radar as a child growing up in Crystal Palace.

When she made her senior England debut against Canada last November, a photo of her school rugby team did the rounds on social media. A smiling Kabeya can be seen standing in the back row, linking arms with Cleall, seemingly unaware that more than half the players on her school team were girls of colour. That quickly changed when Kabeya started climbing the rugby ladder.

“I went to a school in South London, which had predominantly black pupils,” says Kabeya. “My first rugby club was Streatham and Croydon RFC, which was still quite a local club, but even then, as a small local club for girls, I was the only black person or person of colour on that team. It was that point when I started to notice my difference. I’d say that was a little bit of a shock. When I started moving up the ranks, I think the biggest eye opener was when I moved to Richmond – I did realise I was different.”


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