Jade Konkel been a game-changer for women’s rugby in Scotland.
From being unable to play the sport she loved growing up to becoming the country’s first ever professional women’s player and now preparing for another Six Nations campaign, the Harlequins number eight is one of the most-capped players in the current national team squad.
Munlochy athlete Konkel grew up in a rugby household, with both parents and her brothers all playing the sport. But though she is quite matter-of-fact about her journey, it was by no means a straightforward one.
“I grew up on the sidelines of my dad’s games, every Saturday I would be running up and down trying to get on the pitch myself,” Konkel recalled.
“There are many stories my dad tells me of having to scoop me up in a tackle mid-game, because I had decided I could tackle the man he was trying to tackle, which brings me great joy.
“So when I got a bit older, they took me down to Highland Rugby Club when I was about nine, and I did one year with the Minis but I was the only girl in an all-boys team. After that, there was nowhere I could really go. I like to tell people it was because I clearly was just tackling them a bit too hard so they wouldn’t allow me back anymore.
“There was development days that I would go to very sporadically, but without anything set in stone. When I was 17, when I got my drivers’ licence, I decided to try out for this development day down in Edinburgh. I drove to Edinburgh, trialled on this senior development day and got put into the under-20s, which I couldn’t believe.
“I didn’t really understand what the process was or what was going on, but I ended up being in the under-20s for a year, which was really cool and I learned a lot.
“But I had to join an actual rugby team, so I was commuting from Inverness to Glasgow weekly so I could play a bit of rugby while being in the under-20s programme, and then I decided to move to Glasgow to make it easier.
“I moved to Glasgow for uni and played for Hillhead Jordanhill, and then after a year in the under-20s got put into the Scotland women’s squad. When I was 18 I went into the training cap, and then I got capped when I was 19.”
Hard work was the name of the game for Konkel – that and colour-coding. She organised training, work and university schedules to try and maximise her output and become the best player she could be.
Eventually though, there came a tipping point, and when balancing up what was important in her life there was only ever going to be one winner for Konkel.
Support from her parents and the care home she worked in allowed her to take a sabbatical from university and focus on rugby, with the rewards speaking for themselves ever since.
But Konkel’s career has almost come to contrast to her Scotland debut against England in the 2013 Six Nations – when by her own admission she was by no means prepared.
“It was very nerve-wracking,” she admitted.
“I didn’t really know all the laws at that point, I just knew I had to tackle someone with the ball, pass backwards, ruck, all the very basic stuff. If I went into a game now, knowing what I knew – I know the game has evolved but I literally didn’t know anything, I was just a physical player. I think that was what was in my favour when I first joined.
“I was terrified, especially coming on against England, who are one of the best teams in the world.
“Here was little 19-year-old me stepping on the pitch for the first time playing for my country, when I never even thought that was a thing. It was a pretty surreal moment.”
In amongst all the dedication and organisation it took to become a professional player, it is almost hard to believe Konkel struggled with being gay when she was younger.
She first realised she was attracted to women when she was 14, but did not come out for another four years after fearing negative reactions from friends and family in the north of Scotland.
It was no coincidence that Konkel’s coming out eventually happened when she left home for university in Glasgow, but her experience of being LGBT+ in rugby has been nothing but supportive.
“I was very much in denial for many years,” Konkel said.
“I tried to convince everybody that I had boyfriends and I was going to marry a man and have children – the typical scenario that people automatically think. Reflecting back on it, I tried to make people believe that was the case because I was terrified of coming out, and I didn’t know what people would say.
“I didn’t know if I would be accepted, I didn’t know who I would lose around that. I didn’t know how my parents or siblings would take it, so when I moved away to Glasgow I thought there were gay bars in Glasgow, there were more gay people, maybe it would be an easier way to come out and tell people without being judged.
“I texted my mum and my sister to tell them, but at the end of the day they said they wished I could have told them earlier. In hindsight, it makes so much sense, but it was terrifying at the same time.
“Rugby is very stereotypical, but even in the team that I was in there were not as many gay or bisexual people as there were straight people.
“I thought that was super interesting, because it is a stereotypical sport, but every team I’ve played in there has been a very 50/50 ratio. I didn’t really necessarily have to come out to them, they would just ask you the question and say cool, that was it.
“It was a breath of fresh air, because it was so different to anything that I had been involved in back home. It just wasn’t even a thought, which was really nice. I went from being terrified all those years about what people were going to think, to it just being a common question and nobody really cares. It definitely made things a lot easier.”
Though there is still work to be done, progress is being made all the time for LGBT+ people in and out of sport.
Konkel is one example of someone who has had a positive story, showing that not only is it possible to be an elite sportsperson while part of the LGBT+ community, but it should not even be a question.
That is a message that she is even trying to pass on to future generations.
“I did a talk at Stonewall in a school in Surrey a few weeks ago, and loads of the questions were about all the stuff I’ve faced, do people shout at me in the street,” Konkel explained.
“As much as I was terrified about coming out, the world hasn’t been a big, bad, scary place for me.
“In the rugby scene, the ratio is pretty in the middle, nobody then judges. It has kind of been like that everywhere I’ve been, which has been great. As the years have gone on, it has gotten even better because it’s even more accepting.
“Especially with rugby now, it’s more on a public level. Being more open is so important to show that it’s not something you should hide. I got engaged at the end of last year, so I don’t need to hide that I got engaged to a female, which is absolutely amazing.
“The amount of support that I then got on social media was amazing, despite it being a gay relationship. Times have changed a well as the sport in general.
“There are always going to be people that have questions, or maybe will have a little dig at you or have something to say behind your back. You just have to keep educating people and being yourself. The more that you don’t shy away from it, hopefully the more other people won’t shy away from it as well.”
Konkel has already been a history maker in Scottish rugby, but she still has goals she wants to accomplish before hanging up her boots.
She won her 40th cap for Scotland in an Autumn international against Japan last year, but she is not ruling out a bid for Donna Kennedy’s overall Scottish record of 115.
The professional contracts like those the Black Isle star has been given are called 2021 contracts – named because qualifying for the World Cup that year was the target from those pro deals.
And that would be the ultimate dream for Konkel.
“We’ll see how the body holds out,” she laughed.
“I think the game of rugby is definitely a lot more physical than it was when I first started out, and especially the way I’m playing is a lot more physical than when I first started out.
“Myself, Sarah Law and Emma Wassell are all on 40 caps, which is one of the highest in the team. It isn’t actually a lot in the grand scheme of things when you look at England and France, but it shows how much as a squad we have to grow. Hopefully there will be a lot more to add to that.
“I would love to get to a World Cup. For me, ultimately my goal is to get to a World Cup and perform in it I’ve played since 2013, so I missed the 2014 World Cup, I missed the 2017 World Cup, and there’s no way I can go and miss the 2021 World Cup or the 2025 World Cup.
“For me, it’s trying to target those next two World Cups and trying to get to actually play in them. I don’t know if I will ever make a World Cup, but I’ll be damned if I don’t try.”
How is she going to get there? Well, Konkel can always look back on some of her favourite inspirational phrases.
“They do vary,” she added.
“I’ve got little buzzwords, so every single game I will write ‘E.T.T’ on my wrist, which means ‘empty the tank’. It was a guy called Spencer, he was a strength and conditioning coach a few years ago, and he used to write it on every conditioning session, and it has just stuck with me.
“There’s another one that I read in a book called The Champions’ Mind, which is don’t envy the champion, be the champion, which I think is brilliant.
“You can be a tiny little person from Scotland, but you can at least aim big and put the hard yards in. You might never make it, I might never be number one in the world, but I’m definitely going to train to aim for it and hopefully there will be many things on the way that I then achieve.”