In episode 28 we talk with founder and editor of Scrumqueens.com Ali Donnelly.
Ali is also a monthly contributor to Rugby World Magazine and regularly speaks across media outlets about the game. The website was given a special award by the Rugby Writers Association for its contribution to the women’s game and Ali was last year named by Rugby World Magazine as one of the most influential people in rugby.
Away from Scrumqueens.com, Ali is the Deputy Spokesperson to the Prime Minister, balancing a high profile and busy day-job at Downing Street, with delivering quality content for the website, which she runs as a volunteer, and its social media feeds. She is also Head Coach for the Teddington Women’s Team.
Ali takes a broad view on what it is to grow the women’s game. She shares her insights, her determination and gives us a glimpse at what it really takes to start something from scratch.
THE TRANSCRIPT BELOW WAS TYPED FROM A RECORDING AND NOT COPIED FROM AN ORIGINAL SCRIPT. BECAUSE OF THE RISK OF MISHEARING AND THE DIFFICULTY IN SOME CASES OF IDENTIFYING INDIVIDUAL SPEAKERS, WE CANNOT VOUCH FOR ITS COMPLETE ACCURACY.
TX: 01.4.18 – Ep 28. Ali Donnelly – “You work your life around your passion”
HOST: TAMMY PARLOUR
I: Welcome to a Question of Performance. I’m Tammy Parlour and in this series I’ll be performance. Join me for 20 minutes of discussion twice a month to hear a range of views and what it means to be successful, how to cope with failure and what people have learnt along the way. Today’s interview is with the founder and editor of Scrum Queens, Ali Donnelly. Last year she was named as one of the most influential people in rugby. She’s also the deputy spokesperson for the Prime Minister and balances a high profile and busy day job at Downing Street with delivering quality content for this award winning rugby new service. Ali takes a broad view and what it is to grow the women’s game. She shares her insights, her determination and gives us a glimpse of what it really takes to start something from scratch. But first why rugby?
R: Well I started playing when I was 16 because…simply because I’d moved house and it was the nearest sporting field to me and I saw women playing and I thought that looked great fun. I was a GA player so I played Gaelic football and komogi and I was not that school fool but I was quite tough. So, I thought rugby would be good for me and yeah, like lots of people will tell you who’ve played rugby after one session, I was just hooked and I have been ever since as a fan, coach, writer, ex-player. So, yeah, it just really suited me.
I: You’ve set up Scrumqueens and which is the world’s leading independent and award winning women’s rugby website. I’m really fascinated to know where that came from.
R: So, I had moved to London from Ireland in 2007, and I had been a journalist in Ireland and then I’d moved to London and went to work in communications at the BBC after a little bit of journalism work, and I really missed writing and I was very passionate about women’s rugby. I was playing over here. I started playing at Wasp and then I went down to Teddington and I thought well the world cup is approaching and it’s in London where I’m now living. My partner owns a design agency which is very useful. So, they offered to build something and so in 2009 we set the website up. It launched some very little fanfare and the reason or intention was just to sort of see what the response would be like, write about the build up to the World Cup and go from there, and that’s how it started really. I just you know, put a request out for writers and a few volunteers came on board and you know, the day we launched we had like ten stories to launch the website with and it’s just grown and grown from there.
I: To think of what it is now, it’s international. You’ve got stories coming out all the time. How do you get from that starting point to where you are now?
R: Yeah. I mean, for me it was originally about simply shining a light on fixtures, games you know? There was no information. In 2009 when Scrum Queens began, you could barely find a match report. England were about the only team who consistently put out content about their women’s team, but there was nothing else really. You might find the odd fixture but you know, when we started I took all the mobile numbers of all the coaches, managers, anyone who’d give me a number in the international team and I would text them to find out scores at half time, full time, that sort of thing so we could tell people. But there was no information. There was just a gap and we start…I started out really just doing…writing match reports and you know, the odd preview of a tournament, that kind of thing and you know, as the game has changed and the profilers increased so too has you know, what we’ve been doing. There’s not really a need any more for you know, team announcements, things like that. I don’t really post those sorts of things because you can get them on the BBC now for example. So, it’s sort of grown as the games evolved, we’ve had to look at things a bit differently and in terms of how you know, people have…the traffic has grown and how the community has grown, you know I think it’s really important to be credible. You know, I’ve seen lots of women’s rugby websites come and go over the last ten years.
Many of them approach us first and try and get some ideas or try and work with us, but I think a lot of them have missed you know, either consistency so they start with great effect and then taper off as the reality of all of the hard work you have to put in sets in, or they just don’t have the credibility in the game. That takes a long time to build up. When I started Scrum Queens I had already been involved in women’s rugby for a long time. I’d been playing in Ireland. I was a voluntary PR of the Irish Women’s team when it was not with the RFU so I knew all of the players. I still know lots of them. I had written you know, hundreds of articles for newspapers in Ireland about women’s rugby, anyone who would take my buy line while I was a student and building up my own portfolio, I would send them something. So, I think I started with a bit of credibility and then it just built itself up along the way and those two things are really important because people can get fan’s content everywhere but when they want analysis or a view that might not be you know, immensely popular with officials and administrators, that I think they do come to Scrum Queens.
I: You’ve said that often sometimes when the hard work sets in, people start to have difficulties. What’s enabled you to stick at it because you’ve got a career. How is that possible to balance things?
R: That’s a great question, and I get asked that a lot but because I’m somebody who does balance my time well and can get a lot done in you know whatever free time I have, I can never answer that question because I don’t know what people are doing with their time to be honest. You know, people have different priorities but you know, I use the train to work, my 40 minute train ride to do some work. I’ll do a bit of work at lunchtime if I ever am lucky enough to take lunch break. I enjoy you know, when the baby’s gone to bed, I quite enjoy getting the laptop out and writing a couple of articles. You know, today I interviewed the Friends Scrum half when my daughter was having her nap. She woke up unhelpfully in the middle of the interview and had to do those things but you know, you can find the time but I think what’s important is you have the right people around you.
So, at Scrum Queens you know, the other main contributor to the website John Birch, has been just an enormous help and support to me. I mean he’s…he really is the other half of the website. You know, my wife’s design agency able to build it, able to you know, fix the technical problems that often you know, I come across and I have no idea what to do with and at work too, I have a great sort of team around me and I great support network to allow my career to be a success. So, I think you know, it’s about putting your…starting yourself with the right people you know, prioritising your time better. You know don’t get me wrong, if it comes to going for a run or keeping fit I’ll find no free time, but if it’s doing something that I’m passionate about, you can find the time. I mean I’m still coaching a women’s team as well and you know you just work your life around your passion I think, that makes you better at your job too and makes me a better mum I think as well. So, yeah you find the time if you want to.
I: Yeah. You told me offline that running Scrumqueens has helped your career. How so?
R: Yeah it definitely has. I mean as a journ…
I: But your career is very different to running Scrumqueens?
R: …yeah, well yes. I mean I work in the communications and I work as a spokesperson but so as a journalist you know, I was lucky with Scrum Queens with what I did because I had a background in writing, in web writing too and newspaper writing. I understood the media when I started the website so I was able to use all of my contacts to promote it and I understood social media and that really helped. But every single interview I have done in the UK since I set the website up has focused more on Scrum Queens than any other part of my career, and even you know, for the job I do now, you know as a spokesperson for the prime minister, you would imagine the interview would be heavily focused on. Lots of other things, and don’t get me wrong, was a long interview and we covered a lot of topics but they were very interested in Scrum Queens and I think it’s because people you know, people like the fact that you are self starting, that you are self motivating, that you can get on and do things and you know, I’m definitely a get on a do things kind of person, and I think for the jobs that I do which are you know, working in high profile pressurised, press office environments, that’s the kind of attribute that really can be an asset that you see a problem you fix it, get it done and you just get on and deliver and I think also the fact that I’ve been able to show that I’ve done something over a long period of time, I take a lot of pride in it and you know, it’s been successful, I think that’s pretty appealing to employers.
I: Your motivation and passion for it comes…just comes running off you. I want to go to the dark side. There has to have been times through since 2009, since setting it up to now that it hasn’t gone the right way. That you’ve had challenges, that your motivation has been sort of lacking a little bit surely?
R: Yes. I mean I think the times it hasn’t gone as well might be when…so all are volunteers at Scrum Queens and I made a conscious choice to not move beyond that partly because that is you know, something that I feel might compromise what we’re doing. Also it’s not my forte you know, commercialising you know, anything. So, that means that we were allowing to volunteers and sometimes you know, we get very keen volunteers who promise the world and then it all falls away. So, that can be disappointing when you suddenly have a massive gap in your content. But actually I don’t think I’ve dipped too much in terms of motivation and that’s also because…because I do to my own time, and there’s no-one telling me I need to put X Y and Z up, I can take a break. I mean last week between the rest week and the Six Nations, I mean John posted three or four articles about the European Tournament but I didn’t post anything, and so I had almost three or four days of not thinking about not doing anything and the next couple of days you know, interviewing two England players tomorrow. I’m doing another email interview as well with somebody at Q&A so it will crank up again next to the tournament but you know, I can step away from it when I want to and that’s a really nice thing. And then you know, at a World Cup, at a Six Nations we’ll do lots and lots more. So, yeah I haven’t…it’s going to be ten years next year. I probably do need to start thinking about what I’m going to do with it but I’ve never thought oh I can’t be bothered with this you know, because there’s always something new. So, we re-launched the website two years ago and it looks completely different there. We need to do it again because technology changes. You know, we’re using social media feeds. We never used to use so you know, there’s always something that makes it interesting and keeps your motivation high I think.
I: You’re…am I right in thinking your team of writers is internationally spread?
R: Yeah. I mean team is a big word. I mean John Birch and I write the bulk of the content and then we have contributions from around the world, and…
I: So, how does that come out? How do you go about getting the best performance out of people? How…?
R: …yeah I mean people are motivated by saying their name and you know, not in prints but online as well and you know, I think we…the contributions that we do have are very knowledgeable at their areas. So, we have someone who often contributes stories about South American rugby which is not something that we know a lot about, and that requires lots of editing because English is not his first language but he has a great depth of knowledge and we only ask him you know, very rarely to do something and when he does, it’s very good and we’re not sort of overly reliant on the others. You know, players often write for us, coaches have written for us and I think now that the website’s been on a long time, I think people want to be part of it and you know, when I say to a French player who doesn’t speak very much English and can’t really read the website, will you do an interview with Scrum Queens? They say “ah yes, Scrum Queens of course,” you know, and I think the other thing of course is Twitter has been an enormous help to us with terms of keeping our community together because you know, people can see the interactions that we have with fans and with you know, top players and coaches and that makes them interested in being part of what we’re doing.
I: I have a question written down here that says why is Scrum Queens still standing when others have folded, and it seems sort of ridiculous to ask that question now because I just listened to you and it’s sort of well why wouldn’t it still be standing up? Is there any…do you have any insight into why you have succeeded and others haven’t or is it just that determination and just the decision of it’s going.
R: I think you know, I mentioned credibility. That’s really important you know, and that line between being a fan and actually being a reporter which I guess is what we are at Scrum Queens is important and I think we’ve had a lot of people have come into the space and they’ve been fans and I often use the phrase you know, “another cheerleader with a tight brassier,” and that you know, we’ve had a lot of those very well meaning motivated people but in the end they wouldn’t get the sort of traffic because you know, people are interested in reading a bit more about it, and I think the other things would be consistency. You know, Scrum Queens has never switched itself off for six months you know? There’s always a story every week that’s of interest. It might not be you know, it might not be getting 20/30,000 hits. It might get 3/4,000 hits but it doesn’t matter because we’ll, you know, we keep chugging out stories and interviews and I think the other thing that we’ve really tried to do is not be…as you know, I’ve seen a huge change in the coverage of women’s rugby since we’ve started. I mean in ’09 nobody was writing about women’s rugby.
They really weren’t. I mean Stephen Jones at Sunday Times would disagree because he did a couple of world cups and so on but there was nobody else really, and now you know, The Guardian had a big piece in the [unclear 16.18] yesterday, The Times are interviewing players, etcetera, so, we’ve had to change to and the one thing that I think we’ve been really consistent on that has helped us stick around is we never really focused on success so we didn’t just focus on England or New Zealand. You know, we will give as much attention to the Finnish Women’s rugby team if they help us with the information. You know, we’ll spend just as much time writing an article about them or interviewing one of their players that might get 500 hits all from Finland but those 500 people have never read about their team anywhere else before. So, we’ve really felt it’s important to keep shining a light in parts of the game that just don’t get coverage because that’s what we were doing in ’09 with the big teams when nobody else was covering them and now they’re getting that profile and coverage and I feel like you know Scrum Queens is one of the only places that will cover every you know tier four and five competitions or quite obscure countries in Africa who might have a team and have played one match. We will write about them when nobody else will so, I think that’s helped us because people can see that we’re in it for the right reasons. You know, we’re not just here to cover England or Ireland for me who’s the team that I would know the most about. We’re actually in it because we want to promote women’s rugby. It doesn’t really matter who it is and over ten years I think, you know, people will buy into that because they appreciate you’re doing it.
I: What you’re talking is the fans, do you have any insight from your perspective on what people…why people are interested in women’s rugby?
R: Yeah I mean I think you know, with coverage obviously it becomes more profile and then that generates interest and there’s no doubt since the women’s game started signing broadcast deals and started you know, getting games on the BBC red button here in the UK, on Sky Sports around the world and invested in live streaming. So, live streaming’s been a huge innovation in the women’s game in recent years and most of the games you can watch now. The top games are online and you know, with all of that comes renewed interest. I think sevens you know, has been a huge boost for in generating interest in women’s rugby and bringing more fans to the game. You know the Olympic final was just you know, an amazing thing to see. Something I never thought I would see in my lifetime. I mean back when we started, I mean that might be a bit of an exaggeration but back when we started you know, they had not…you know, world rugby were not successful in their bid to part of the Olympics because they did not have enough equality between men’s and women’s rugby basically, and you know, I kind of thought it would fall by the wayside then but you know, they have invested and we now have professional rugby women players and certainly I didn’t think I’d see that for 20/30 years so all of that has helped to generate interest and spectators but you know, there’s still an awful long way to go you know…?
I: What would you like to see? What changes would you like to see?
R: In general in women’s rugby?
R: Oh so many. How long have you got? I really sent a list of ways the Six Nations could be better to some of the Six Nations officials. I don’t know if they’re going to read it but…
I: You haven’t got a response yet?
R: …no, I’ve had a very nice thank you, and these are very interesting. I think you know, one of the issues…I mean there’s a big debate in the women’s game about 15s and sevens and you know, this sort of debate in cricket say, you know, some time back and you know, no-one has really worked out the right formula yet, whether to go all out and warn all [unclear 19.47] etcetera. So, but I think for me 15s is still the game and I love 15s. I would rather watch you know, a nil or you know, mod fest than watch SMs tournament which is a terrible thing to say and I think sevens is great but it’s not my type of you know, entertainment. I’d much rather watch 15s but the 15s game is still where fans…it’s still where players play. Most players take the game up to 15s around sort of sevens team. They just join and play. If you look at the world cup in Ireland last year and the one in Paris before that, the numbers of fans that turned out, the fans that watched on broadcast etcetera, you know, far surpasses anything. The sevens game is able to achieve right there and so there is a huge market in test 15s and then 15s are beaten. You know, one I would really like to see is beyond the Six Nations and the World Cup you know, more tier two competitions. You know, we saw Spain playing last week in the European Championships and they you know, all avenues are blocked off for them in terms of development because there’s no tier two European competition of any value.
You know they’re way too good for all of the other teams and the European competition that they’re currently in, they never get to play the Six Nations teams really apart from the odd friendly and you know, they’re trying to build up for World Cup on that basis. So, I think I would love to see more investment in tier two 15s and all of the investment we’re seeing at the moment has gone into sevens. So, I’d like to see that. More countries taking responsibility of their domestic game and getting hold of it and the less of a top down approach which has served countries like Ireland very well with small player base, investing a lot of time and energy in their you know, top 20 players but now they’ve come out with a disappointing world cup figure and have to rethink that because that’s as far as I’ve moved on you know. So, I I’d like to see a bit more just in the next tier down and in the 15s, and just a realisation actually the market for a 15s is huge. You know, France will probably have 10,000 people at this game between themselves and England this weekend, and you know, that’s incredible. That’s their fans who are just coming out to watch women’s rugby. So, yeah, I mean the more that we can invest in 15s I think the better because sevens is on a roll and will continue to attract cash and sponsors eventually, and…but that 15s game needs a bit of a G up I think.
I: Do you see sport as political?
I: Tell me a little bit about that.
R: You know, I think it’s very noble when people say that they think the two shouldn’t mix but actually it’s not reality. You know, thinking about women’s sports, you know, every time a woman is not allowed into a stadium, cannot play this…is banned from playing a sport and that’s political. You know, we saw the Winter Olympics recently and how politics in sports cross over each other and you know, it can be a really good thing but they’re certainly not separate and anyone who thinks, they are wrong.
I: I’m just going to ask you a question that I’m asking everybody and that’s about success because this podcast is about performance and different people’s views on success. What’s success for you personally?
R: Oh! I should’ve thought about this before I came in. Success for me is doing what I do to a really high standard and being happy with it. I have very high expectations of people around me because I have high expectations of myself and you know I find in my work environment for example, you know I manage a big team in Downing Street in a very young, ambitious, high achieving people who you know, wouldn’t be there otherwise, and you know, for me it’s vital that I set the standard and my work quality is high because only then can I expect that from them and when those two things are working, that’s success to me, and Scrum Queens to its own extent is the same. You know, I expect my interviews and my research to be good and the content needs to be good and I think you can bring others along with you if they see that you were setting the standard, if that makes sense?
I: Totally. I’m just going to end up with some quick fire questions. What did you eat for breakfast?
R: Toast and banana.
I: Favourite piece of kit?
R: Ooh! That’s a good question. As a coach I really like…so there’s a rugby pad you can get where you attach it to your back and it means that players can jump up and you can kick the ball and they can have a soft landing. We have one of them at my club and there’s a constant scrap before training between all the teams to get it. I quite like it.
I: A sporting hero?
R: Probably Sonny O’Sullivan who is an athlete from Cork where I’m from. She’s from about three miles up the road from me.
I: And why her?
R: Because she inspired everyone in Ireland when we were not very well known for our prowess in athletics and she’s the first person I remember coming inside from playing to watch on the telly. I mean she was local to me too which made a difference because you’d occasionally see her and she felt like someone I could talk to if I passed her on the street. I mean she didn’t feel like a celebrity but I think that first kind of memory of watching someone do really well I mean for your country, and everybody watching the telly you know, man, woman, child. Yeah she was amazing. She was such an Irish icon.
I: Most useless piece of advice that you’ve either been given or given to someone else?
R: I…I’m going to say a really cliché thing here and say that all advice whether bad or good is useful because sometimes bad advice reminds you, you know, what not to do. I mean when I left my last job, so I used to work for another government department before I came to Downing Street, you know, people told me I was mad to go and work there. Why would you want to go and work in Downing Street? You will have no quality of life. People who work there are really tough and you know, all the rest of it, and that was terrible advice because it’s the best job I’ve ever had and yes it’s really hard and yes it’s challenging and there are some really rough days in there. You know, last summer we…I worked you know, five, six weekends in a row around some really awful tragedies you know? We had Grenfell, we had terror attacks and you know, at the same time there was you know, domestic issues and we were talking about Europe and they’re really tough but if I’d taken the advice of some really important senior people around me in other parts of government, God! What and idiot I would’ve been but you know, in hindsight I can see why they said that but you have trust your gut. You have to trust your instinct and my instinct was there’s a big right yeah.
I: Greatest passion outside of sport?
R: I mean now I would say my daughter. For sure she’s just amazing, fun, energetic girl but probably you know, probably this is really naff but probably reading the newspaper. I love newspapers. I love the smell of them. I love the feel of them. I buy one every day…
I: Which section do you read?
R: …I always read sport first obviously but I…I mean I read the news for my job to be fair, but I’m a big fan of the comment pieces and I read editorials and there are certain commentators I really like, certain commentators I hate. I always read the ones I hate too because I feel it’s very important to understand how the people are feeling, but yeah reading newspapers. There’s nothing like a Saturday morning if I have a quiet time just to you know, I won’t tell you my favourite newspaper but to read the newspaper with a coffee…
I: Maybe when we’re offline…
R: …yeah, yeah.
I: …best performance and answer?
R: …ooh! I should have thought about this because you did mention some of these to me. I think it’s playing for your team mates and I know that’s probably a different answer to others you were given but…
I: I like to put down something.
R: …yeah I mean as a coach of adult women, you know, ages from sort of 18 to 36…actually there’s a 40 year old I coach, so there’s a real span of ages. It doesn’t really matter when they’re on the field. You know, they you know for example we played top of the league last week and we’re not having a great season, and you know, we really talked about doing for each other and we beat them right? And it was a real shock to everyone in the league not least to ourselves to be honest, but they weren’t better than the other team on paper or anything but God! The will to do it for each other and I think that can add you know, 20 to 30% to your performance. You know, maybe I’m giving you too long answer here but being Irish I think we as a nation of athletes and you know sports teams and so on, we really derive a lot of motivation and passion from togetherness, and I think that’s such an enhancer. You know, when Ireland play England you know, when Ireland played England at Crow Park and that was a really for the first time such an historic day because of everything that ground represents in Irish history. You know, grown men were just balling, crying watching the thing and of course we won right? We had to win that match but I’d say emotion and playing for each other carried them 30/40% of the way and that’s a very Irish thing, and I think it’s such an enhacer if you’re out there and you’re like not that sure but you know you’ve got your mates beside you. I think that can really boost you up.
I: Well it’s been brilliant talking to you Ali. Thank you very much.
R: Thank you.
I: Thanks for listening. You can follow the conversation on Twitter, Facebook and also don’t forget to subscribe online to aquestionandperformance.com
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