Former British and Irish Lion, Harlequins star and now leading rugby pundit Ugo Monye has claimed that the RFU is on the cusp of a watershed moment, following the success of an ‘incredibly diverse’ England Rugby 2019 Rugby World Cup campaign.
Speaking at Sport Industry Private Dining Club in Central London, Monye – 14-times capped by England himself – urged the RFU to use the tournament as a catalyst to reach new heights, particularly at a grassroots level.
“We need to be celebrating the team that we have in front of us now, which is genuinely ground-breaking in how it represents our sport and our country.”
England went into the tournament with eleven BAME players in their 31-man squad – a record for an England Rugby World Cup group – and reached the final before ultimately succumbing to a South Africa side featuring their nations first ever black captain.
“For a long time the disparity in the way rugby was set up was huge – you had to look a certain way, but now it’s so different. When I was young, I looked up to people who looked like me and now there will be a huge amount of people wanting to get into rugby so we need to ensure we champion the diversity and grow that side of things.
“It’s genuinely amazing to see.”
Monye was open and candid during the invite-only event, and reflected on his own England career with earnest regret. After emerging as one of the country’s most promising wings at Harlequins, he made his England debut in 2009 before immediately joining up with the British & Irish Lions for their tour of South Africa later that year.
However, despite an immensely successful tour for Monye, he only went on to make 14 caps, and he believes he could’ve made many more.
“All of it is down to me, ultimately. I was obviously unfortunate with injuries at times but there is a very valuable lesson to learn. I got capped and within seven months was with the Lions, but at that point everything felt very comfortable.
“It’s far easier to chase than be chased and I let myself slip, got comfortable, and will eternally regret that. Ultimately, England has the biggest talent pool in global rugby and there were far too many people that were knocking on the door. If you hit bad form or get too comfortable then you can lose a lot.
“As much as I love my career, I’ll obviously always wonder if there could have been more there.”
Fast forward to now and it is that same comfort that Monye feels struck England during the 2019 Rugby World Cup final.
“The team, and the entire nation, was seduced by what we did against New Zealand of course, but its historic. England had to be their best the entire tournament and the final was just a step to far. They were going 100% and to repeat that three weekends in a row is incredibly hard – the psychological effort is staggering.”
Monye’s own route to the top, meanwhile, was less than conventional – something he maintained throughout his playing career, punditry career and ambassadorial roles now in RugbyX.
“I never meant to get into rugby. I was a North London boy, an Arsenal fan and all I wanted to do was to play for the Gunners. I ended up going to a private school in the country and told I wasn’t allowed to play ‘chav ball’ so because I was fast I played rugby to make friends.
“I genuinely was a headless chicken with a ball, but I was encouraged in everything I did and ultimately that meant I carried on and wanted to succeed. It’s a huge lesson I’ve taken with me everywhere I go.”
What stands out about Monye is both his loyalty and personality, something he has been sure to help mould him as a player. A rare one-club man, he lives and dies by his Harlequins teammates and was quick to remember that his greatest days were when he was with his squad.
“I used to love getting booed. It was the greatest feeling in the world, being away from home and being booed. It meant that, within that stadium, the only people you could rely on were your 14 other teammates and that is a special feeling. A brotherhood and camaraderie like no-other.”
It’s a loyalty and affability that has endeared Monye to the public throughout his newfound media career. Working across BT Sport, BBC, ITV and JOE – Monye is never far away from a TV screen or a podcast mic, and it something he admits was never in the plan.
“It’s something I always enjoyed but was never in the plan. I’ve been so fortunate to be given the opportunities I have but, at the end of the day, I’m doing something I love. I love rugby, and I’m passionate about rugby, so getting to talk about it every day is my dream job.”
It’s that very passion, excitement and hunger to enjoy his work that has stood Monye out throughout his career. Always playing with a smile on his face, and loved by teammates and colleagues alike, he is now using the platform he has built to change rugby for the better. With the fire that kept him competitive across a 13-year career still powering him, he’s certain to succeed in whatever the future holds.
Sport Industry Private Dining Club is an invitation-only members club that meets four times a year at some of the best venues in London, providing top level representatives from across the sport industry with the opportunity to network and socialise in an informal and relaxed setting.