This week FRC’s Lily O’Hara caught up with Grassroots player and NHS key worker Rachel Nowikow about the challenges she has faced over the past year.
“I started playing at university when I was 19, though I actually tried to join the football team but I ended up in the wrong place and joining a group of women throwing a rugby ball around. I was too scared to say anything so I joined in as though I was meant to be there. I liked the way they treated new players with such an inclusive spirit. It felt irrelevant of any experience or existing skill level. So, I gave it a go and I haven’t played any other sport since. All the players were kind and approachable, which felt different to other sports, less rivalry, and the more experienced girls were keen and encouraging towards new players.
I’ve only ever played number 4 in the second row, which has always been my position because I’m tall and I guess I do a good job because I’ve never been moved, so I’m not what you’d call a utility player. I do enjoy second row and sometimes if subs are needed I have been moved to number 8 which was interesting considering I’ve never played in that position before. All the other positions, apart from my own, baffle me.
My first memory of playing rugby was at Uni for a team which was in its infancy. We were simply happy to have enough numbers to fill a team. My first match we pitched up to play against another team who seemed really serious, with their own coach and subs on the bench. We were in awe and consequently we did get smashed, score wise and in the pub afterwards. I remember thinking I had no idea what was going on. At one point the captain passed me the ball only one meter away from the try line, so all I had to do was fall forward to score the try but I somehow managed to knock it on. Painful!
I know concussion is a hot topic at the moment and it’s a lot better than it used to be. I’ve worked as a pitch side Physio for 5 years and it has come on leaps and bounds since I started to make the game safer. Awareness is essential, especially as it’s been in the news about players with head injuries and links to dementia. Most teams will request their players to fill out concussion awareness forms to provide the proper awareness and training in players. It’s good to see head injuries are taken more seriously and players are taken for Head Injury Assessments (HIAs). Of course, mental health is as important as your physical health and just because you cant see an injury doesent mean its not there.
I am passionate about promoting diversity in rugby. Inclusivity needs more funding from grassroots level to encourage minority players to take up the sport. Proven by players such as Maro Itoje, Beno Obano, the list goes on – incredible players who without such initiatives may not have been discovered. Any rugby player will say they are inclusive but there’s we still need to be doing more. For example, actively creating opportunity for new players to join clubs, rather than waiting and hoping they’ll rock up. For me rugby is a sport of privilege. There is always more we can be doing to increase the diversity of the sport. I started a Facebook group called ‘Rugby- Broaden your horizons’ which was aimed at anyone in the rugby community to come together to educate themselves and others. Anyone is encouraged to post about anything that aims to educate another member of the group, whether it be BLM, the LGBTQ+ community, rugby against racism and positive activism. Being a part of the group is the bare minimum we can do as a rugby community, whilst it’s wonderful to see players taking a knee, there’s more work to be done to pledge diversity at both grassroots and professional levels.
I don’t support a specific team but there are players I admire like Simi Pam at Bristol Bears, who’s an activist as well as an unreal rugby player. I love watching Bears play because of her. Two younger players who are coming through the ranks are Detysha Harper at Loughborough Lightning who got her first senior cap in the Six Nations after playing under 20s for England. Then there’s Sadia Kabeya at Wasps who’s another young player to watch. They’re so good now, I’m in awe of them and what they will bring to the sport. I do have a soft spot for Joe Launchbury, England player, who plays the same position as me. I won a competition to train with England Men’s Squad so I met him – he’s the loveliest guy.
As a trained Physiotherapist, I’m normally spend my Saturdays taping up the men’s team and providing pitch side first aid. I help the 1st team and Vets, which have different needs. There’s often big hype on game day and it’s exciting and you feel like you’ve contributed towards a potential win. When I Physio for the 2nd team and Vets its more about keeping everyone safe, which they’re really grateful for, so that’s rewarding.
I didn’t pass my A levels the first time around so I didn’t go to university at the same time as my friends. Instead I started out as a receptionist for the NHS and have worked there ever since. I re-took my A-levels so I could go to a London university to study Physiotherapy. I completed three years of student placements in the NHS working on stroke wards, respiratory wards, ITUs and outpatient departments. When I qualified as a Physiotherapist, a profession I adored, I wanted to continue my studies so I took on a master’s course to become a Physician Associate. When Covid put the course on hold, I worked as a Healthcare Assistant on a covid ward. My shifts were 13-hour days, wearing full PPE – I definitely found a new respect for ITU nurses who normally work such long shifts. They have no choice but to care as normal for the highly infectious covid patients. More than a year later I have been able to obtain my master’s degree so I am now a Physician Associate working at a GP practice. We are currently vaccinating patients alongside our normal clinics. I do feel a sense of achievement, starting the pandemic on an ITU ward, witnessing first-hand what the virus can do to hopefully ending it by giving vaccinations to people.
The pandemic is still crazy at the moment, people are still dying but slowly the numbers are going down. I’m still dealing with grieving families consoling the relatives left behind but there is nearly a light at the end of the tunnel. Of course, I’m aiding vaccinations at the same time, as well as helping other patients so there’s no down time at all. What keeps us going is the comradery felt amongst my colleagues. We keep each other going by looking after each other, paying attention to someone if they’ve had a tough day. Once this pandemic is over, I’m looking forward to sitting in the sunshine with friends, taking a quiet moment to myself and breathing a sigh of relief that it’s over, its finally over — and hopefully I played a part in defeating the virus.
Since March 2019, when training and everything rugby came to a halt I’ve either been working or asleep. I’ve learnt to be okay with that as it is good to exercise but sometimes you need to give your mental health what it wants. I try not going to force myself after a long day to go for a run in the rain/snow. I’m an active person so know when I can, I will exercise regularly. It’s been quite nice to have a break and I’m sure I’ll pick it up again soon. I’m respecting my mental health at the moment. Unfortunately, I’m not going to come out of lockdown with a transformation body but I’m okay with that. For anyone who’s really missing playing rugby and doesn’t understand why we can’t play, the time will come again. Try to make the most of this rest whilst you can to heal old injuries. I know everyone is keen to play sport again when it’s safe. It seems a long time ago when we were allowed to go outside and throw a ball. I’m sure everyone is desperate to play; the time will come and only fair to wait until it is safe. Whilst you may be low risk, you may come into contact with those at high risk. Respect other players that aren’t in a lucky position that you are.