By Scott Harland
A few images come to mind when most people picture Rugby players – the gregarious, beer-loving singer of racy songs, the pain-ignoring juggernaut with a forehead like a Volkswagen, or glamorous television personality that win awards for her work with international charities.
Wait, what was that last one again?
Rugby has long been populated by impressive characters from all walks of life. Fill a room with theoretical physicists, wealthy entrepreneurs or social activists and a few will likely be Rugby players. Fill a room with Rugby players and there will be some fascinating people leading inspiring lives. Like Meghan Mutrie.
Some know her as “Mooch” from her time as a fiery player on Canada’s Sevens and Fifteens teams. Some know her from her clever spots as a presenter on New Zealand’s TV sports show Crowd Goes Wild (CGW). And a lot of children in difficult living conditions in West Africa will know her as one of the volunteers from the Right To Play organisation that brings fun, hope, and strength to their community through sports and recreation.
Mooch played a lot of sports as a youngster, and started playing Rugby at the urging of her school’s American football coach. The sport was gaining popularity in her community in western Canada but was still an unusual choice for an athlete that could have excelled in several so-called mainstream sports.
“When you grow up around a sport like ice hockey, you can't help but know it by osmosis but rugby was still relatively foreign me as a young Canadian. It's changing now with kids able to follow it on national telly and through the internet,” she said.
Mooch’s talents were a good fit for Rugby, and she climbed quickly up the ladder, playing several years for Canada at a time when the players had to raise the bulk of the funds for each trip and training camp.
While recovering from a lengthy injury she acted as the communications manager for Canada’s women’s team and the unique approach of her video reports caught the attention of the NZ sports media. She worked as a multimedia journalist for one Super Rugby season, then she covered Rugby World Cup 2011 for Crowd Goes Wild.
Crowd Goes Wild
Meghan’s wit and journalism background were a good fit for CGW and she continues to work for the light-hearted sports show, where she has interviewed many world-famous athletes and personalities. Meghan claims she can get awkward with or without a microphone in hand but a graduate diploma in journalism helped prepare her for her current TV role. Nevertheless, there are still situations one can’t read about in a textbook or learn of in a classroom.
“I was left speechless after interviewing Russell Crowe a few years back at a Christchurch earthquake charity match, when he asked if I was crazy because the colours of my nail and toe polish were different.... I tried to sound witty in my response but nothing came out – all you could hear were tumbleweeds and crickets after that!”
With some of the world’s biggest rugby personalities on her doorstep, Meghan is still drawn to the sagas and yarns from Rugby’s less glamorous roots.
“I think there is a lot to be learned from history - good and bad. I would love to sit down with groups of guys who played together, for their clubs or countries or the Lions, when media wasn't so pervasive and all-knowing. Those players have terrific banter about what happened in the sheds, and all the tour tales and struggles that remained in the background. I wouldn't want it to be in an interview format though, more like that one scene in Jaws where they sit in the boat at night and start to loosen up, playfully pushing each other’s buttons. I would sit and just listen like a little girl listening to her dad read bedtime stories."
Competitive ice-hockey player
“Also, and I was a part of this so I have seen the potential value, it'd be great to get the girls together – the world’s pioneers of women's rugby – to swap the often hilarious and sometimes poignant stories about what they faced trying to play and promote the sport they loved. We don’t need a bra-burning session or to be negative about the past; women's rugby has come so far (not there yet but definitely getting there) and I think it would be a fitting way to recognized some of the women who got it to where it is. Also, there are some fantastic, entertaining characters from the past few decades of the women's game that the world should really get a chance to meet.”
As a competitive ice-hockey player, Meghan trained with some NHL players that were athlete ambassadors for Right To Play, the charitable organisation that uses sport and recreation to help young people in disadvantaged communities deal with poverty, conflict and disease. Meghan expressed an interest and was eventually recruited by Simon Bell, the RTP Athlete Coordinator.
“Simon is an incredible human being, He's honestly amazing! So they sent me an information packet and I cried with a smile on my face through the whole DVD! Not like, snot-running-down-your-face sobs, but just a few tears because I knew I had found something I genuinely believed in.”
“I went to West Africa with RTP last year for five days – only five – and I was a complete wreck when I came home! A lot of it was due to the exhaustion from the travel but no one can prepare you for the amount you are going to feel on a trip like that. I think I was broken down, humbled and built back up every day by the kids' joy in the face of daily struggles, and the hard working RTP community leaders. You live a thousand lifetimes in a week through strangers; hearing their stories, sharing meals, laughing, teaching... but these simple moments are what stick with you and continue to move you. You go into it knowing it's going to change you, not knowing how, and being completely okay with the surrender.”
Helping disadvantaged kids
“There are a few things to know about working with RTP – actually, there are a probably 1,000 but I'll start here: if anyone ever gets a chance to go to a less advantaged community in a different part of the world, I know it's only natural to do it but don't compare it to your own 'haves'. Remember it's relative, so take a step back, take off your shoes and step into theirs. Immerse yourself and you'll see how relatively happy everyone usually is!”
“Secondly, you don't need to travel half way around the world to Africa to help through sport. RTP does work in disadvantaged countries but get involved with the community – your community – and start volunteering your time with youth in sport around you.”
“And thirdly, talk to kids like people, don’t talk at them. Don't underestimate them just because they're young! Hang out with them, listen, play... they're pretty cool, and very impressionable.”
Right To Play also works to promote gender equality in communities where girls do not usually have the same opportunities as boys. This facet of their work resonates with Meghan.
“Along with most first world kids, I am so lucky. I was never overlooked for education or participation purely because of my gender. In fact, growing up playing sports with boys and girls alike makes a child blind to gender – you're just a body to make up numbers to have equal teams! And if you're a bit weird, they put you in goal [laughs].”
“But getting to play means so much more to girls in communities where gender equality is a challenge. In any country, sport provides youth with a sense of self, confidence and empowers them to test themselves, but this becomes a lifeline for little girls in disadvantaged communities who don't normally have the same opportunities as the boys. This effect goes beyond just the children, too. Community leaders and other adults change their gender perceptions as they witness the tangible benefits of sport and play. I know firsthand that playing sport as a child arms you with long-serving life lessons. I think every little girl should have that chance, especially in areas where they deal with life-threatening social and political adversity every day.”
Rugby fits with RTP's ethos
“The sport of Rugby and its values aligns with Right To Play's ethos. Recent involvement of myself and the Rugby Canada women adds to All-Black legend Zinzan Brooke, former Australia captain Nick Farr-Jones, Ben Ryan, the England Sevens coach, and Andy Gomersall of the Harlequins and England but I think the public can expect to see the global Rugby family becoming more involved with Right To Play, especially with Rio 2016 on the horizon.”
Meghan’s role on Crowd Goes Wild makes use of her comical nature, but she has had her own battles, and her hard-earned wisdom has been further enhanced through her work with Right To Play.
“Life has its way of testing you – and I don't think you really know yourself until you've been shaped by this basic struggle. Some people cruise through life without ever experiencing hardship and I actually feel sorry for them – that sounds weird, I know, but they've never been tested. Some of the most remarkable people I know are the ones who look for a lesson in a bad experience. I think life is about choosing how you react to what happens to you, and then using what you've learned to help others.”
“It’s important to relax. Have your overarching goals and have your ambitions, but also be ready to let it go and just enjoy what's in front of you. And be easy on yourself. I'm still a student of this and I don't always get it right, so I have the Latin word for 'balance' tattooed on the inside of my wrist as a reminder. It helps.”
“No matter what else I have going on that day – even if it's one of those days, I try really hard to be a good person in all my interactions. As my best friend says and my mom exemplifies: ‘The true measure of a man is how he treats someone who can do absolutely nothing for him.’”
For Meghan’s work in Right To Play she was awarded a Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal by Canada in 2012. She was thrilled at the award, and hopes that it will help draw attention to RTP and the communities it helps, and bring more volunteers and athletes to the cause. Especially from Rugby.
For more information on Right To Play, visit them at righttoplay.com.
By Scott Harland