When Bryony Shepherd found out she would be walking out at Twickenham Stadium for the Gallagher Premiership Rugby Final, her response was to cry tears of joy.
The 14-year-old – part of the newly formed Weston Roses – has worked for months to ensure girls had a space where they could play rugby and, thanks to Project Rugby, her efforts are bearing fruit.
A joint initiative between Premiership Rugby and England Rugby, the scheme has teamed up with clubs all over the country to reach people from traditionally under-represented groups to get them involved and challenge the existing perceptions surrounding the sport.
In Shepherd’s case, Weston Rugby has gone from not having a girls’ team at all to having a side coached by Bristol Bears Women star Esme Bird.
“I went to the chairman and asked him about a women’s team – initially, we played with the minis but I kept going at it and we were able to form a team in the end,” said Shepherd.
“It’s been a rollercoaster of emotions – all going up – and it’s such an amazing feeling to be at this stage.”
Supported by Rich Hynes at Bristol Bears, Shepherd’s work will be given its full credit as she was handed the coveted opportunity to attend the Gallagher Premiership Rugby final.
When she found out her reward, the Hans Price Academy student was speechless at the chance to walk out in front of such a huge crowd and display girls’ rugby for all to see.
She added: “I cried! It has always been my dream–- I always wanted to be out there playing.
“When I was younger, I always watched my brother out on the pitch and now I get to be there too!”
But while the Twickenham appearance is a boon in itself, the journey along the way has been the real reward for Shepherd.
Whether it be playing regularly in the girls’ side or being coached by Bears’ player Bird, who was keen to reach out and get involved once she heard about the work being done at the grassroots level by the likes of Shepherd.
“My highlight has really been meeting my new teammates and everyone involved,” she said. “The coaching has just been great – no complaints there with Esme!
“It’s been a long journey, but an amazing one. I’m just going to take these moments as they come and enjoy it. The aim is just to keep playing rugby and keep improving.
“My aim is to be a Bristol Bears player in the future!”
Since Project Rugby’s launch in 2017, which is run in partnership with Gallagher, 25,000 14-24 year olds have taken part, helping to increase participation in the game.