Ellie Kildunne interview: ‘I want to be the best player in the world, man or woman’

Ellie Kildunne runs with the ball during a England training session
Ellie Kildunne is the top try-scorer in this year's Women's Six Nations - Getty Images/Alex Davidson

When Siya Kolisi, South Africa’s two-time World Cup-winning captain, messaged Ellie Kildunne over social media to offer his congratulations on England’s victorious WXV campaign last autumn, the Red Roses full-back did a double take.

“I thought it was a fake account at first,” she says, smiling at the memory. “So to verify him, I told him to send me a selfie.”

Kolisi, who was on his first training day with new club Racing 92, willingly obliged and the pair exchanged a few messages. “He knows his stuff about the women’s game,” says Kildunne. “I was so impressed by that.

“We don’t have that many chats with the men’s players. He told me he really wanted to come to one of my games so I said, ‘Well if you’re going to come to one of mine, I want to go to one of yours’.”

Within weeks, Kildunne found herself pitchside at the Paris La Defense Arena watching Kolisi in action under the stadium’s dimmed lights and wrapped up in its atmospheric charm. “He’s openly said he wants to help the women’s game. To have a rugby legend outwardly say something like that is a massive step forward,” says Kildunne.

As the top try-scorer in this year’s Women’s Six Nations with six – not to mention picking up two player-of-the-match accolades in three matches – Kildunne is becoming something of a Red Roses poster girl for her exploits on the pitch and creativity off it. The Harlequin was not interested in reading the RFU media brief for this interview, perhaps knowing it would, at some point, veer away from the oval-shaped game and towards her two main passions: photography and fashion.

A year ago, while she was injured, she picked up a camera and started snapping. Her photos, which are available to view on her dedicated Instagram account, Ellie K Films, puts a cinematic slant on her experiences in rugby, while her love for fashion (“I’ve kind of found my style… which is anything,” she smirks) has sparked her own ideas on how the women’s game can reach new audiences.

“We know women’s rugby has an audience that is based around friends, family and kids – it’s very different to the men’s,” says Kildunne. “Our step up can be bringing fashion, music, art and culture into it and making it an expressive space. That’s what we’re doing on the pitch – we’re expressing ourselves. If we can have a whole different colour palette of people come to a game, it’s only going to grow the sport in a completely different direction.

“You look at the NBA, Wimbledon, the NFL, where it’s cool to go to a game – everybody wants to get a photo of themselves courtside. We can absolutely do that in rugby. People are saying at [next year’s Women’s] World Cup, we’ll be selling out Twickenham, but we can do it before… why not?”

An avid vintage clothes shopper, Kildunne has grand plans to tap into the culture of ‘Blokecore’ – the internet trend which combines fashion and football shirts from the 1980s and 1990s – but in rugby. She has already conducted a photoshoot with Harlequins, in which she sports some of the club’s old baggy men’s cotton shirts from years gone by in quirky locations around London and wants to do the same with England Rugby.

There are, she believes, more unconventional ways to market women’s rugby beyond the often used optics of male allyship and the “product” her and her team-mates put out on the pitch.

Granted, her second try against Wales last month – when she contorted her body over the line just as two defenders were attempting to bundle her into touch – was one worthy of any highlights reel.

“I’m the strongest I’ve ever been,” admits Kildunne. “I’ve knuckled down on the gym side of things. I don’t look like the biggest girl on the pitch but that might surprise people in contact. It’s something that probably isn’t touched on enough in male-dominated female sport. It’s getting that balance in the mind that we’re here to be strong and athletic and going against the female stereotypes that are out there.

“I went into London quite a bit in the summer and whenever I had a vest top on someone would mention I looked like an athlete. I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s great – I’ve been working hard in the gym’. A few years ago I might have taken that as a negative, but I’ve become someone who trains hard and I’ve seen how it impacts me on the pitch. I’ve become obsessed with it.”

Honing her strength is just one part of Kildunne’s mission to be “the best player in the world, man or woman… why the hell not?” Women, she says, should not be limited to gendered boxes. It is a bold ambition from a woman who spent her early years laying down roots in rugby league in the Yorkshire town of Keighley before being scouted on to union’s pathway.

The next few minutes of our wide-ranging conversation pass with Kildunne elaborating on this theme with her own pick ‘n’ mix of the world’s best backs she follows for inspiration.

‘I want to create my own superhero’

“You look at Jordie Barrett’s physicality in the way he can be so dominant yet fast – I’ll take bits of that,” says Kildunne, who also seamlessly name checks Emma Sing, the Gloucester-Hartpury full-back who she is currently keeping out of the England starting side. “I’ll look at Cheslin Kolbe. He’s not always a full-back, but his footwork is insane, so I’ll take a bit of that.

“If you can make your ‘superhero’ full-back, you’d take loads of things from different people. There’s no point in me saying, ‘I’m going to be the next Freddie Steward’ because we’re totally different people and players. I don’t aspire to be like anybody else, I want to create my own superhero in myself by taking elements of other people who are already out there.”

She will look to deliver another superhuman performance on Saturday, when England welcome Ireland in front of an expected crowd of almost 50,000 at Twickenham, which will mark the second bumper attendance for a stand-alone women’s game at the home of English rugby in as many years.

“It feels amazing, but I think we need to start putting ourselves in the place where these sorts of crowd numbers are expected because the game’s growing,” says Kildunne, matter-of-factly.

It is hard to disagree with this visionary Red Roses thinker. This is Ellie Kildunne’s world, all of us – even Siya Kolisi – are living it.

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