Richmond's Laura Kapo on how rugby has helped her deal with cancer but why the game she loves needs to do more to embrace diversity
As the women of Richmond Rugby take to the field against Loughborough Lightning tomorrow one face in the crowd will be wishing more than anyone she was out there with them.
Earlier this month 34 year-old Laura Kapo underwent what she hopes was her last round of surgery in a four-year battle against sarcoma cancer. And in an uplifting interview with NewsChain, one of the club's most senior players talked of the things she still wished to achieve in the game and how rugby became her 'best distraction'.
"I would still play this weekend if they let me. I'm gutted I can't.
"I’m still doing some rehab but I’m hoping to be back within the next few weeks to be able to play and train properly. "
“I was suffering with a few different symptoms for six months, my original diagnosis was arthritis. I was just being put on various different treatment plans for six months and more prescriptions, more prescriptions.
“But nothing was really working and things were getting worse so the physio was like go back to your GP and demand more tests,” she said.
“I remember getting the diagnosis late morning, being in a bit of a daze. I was sent off for more tests and went to meet several different people from different departments and speaking to different nurses and therapists.
“It got to five o’clock and there was nothing really else for me to do and I was given the choice to stay or go home so I said, ‘no it's Thursday and I need to go training'. My kit was in the car anyway and very much my mindset was ‘I’ve got something else to do’ and for me it has been the best distraction."
Kapo first joined Richmond aged 17 because she needed a second sport for her A-level Physical Education course. Her teacher encouraged her to take part but Kapo knew nothing about rugby as she came from a football family originally.
“The friendships which I needed and everything I wanted was here,” she said. Kapo has grown up around the Richmond area and has been a one-club girl.
“The support structure, the great facilities, the coaching was excellent so there was no reason for me to want to look anywhere else. I have made life-long friends here.”
Kapo soon realised that the challenges she faced dealing with cancer and trying to continue playing rugby.
Over the last few years the medical team, the strength and conditioning staff, the coaches have all modified her training programme.
“We have different medical checks I have to pass before I have the all-clear to train or play. The checks include getting a baseline for glucose levels because my sugar levels vary quite dramatically.
“Not being able to eat things or stomach meals is quite hard, being able to balance that has been quite tricky. My blood pressure as well, we have got like a baseline for my heart rate and a base temperate as well.”
It requires a great deal of personal discipline from Kapo. She is now able to recognise her different symptoms and knows when it is suitable to pull herself out of a game.
“In the first couple of years when we weren’t really monitoring my nutrition and baseline stats before a game, I would be running on for pure adrenaline which is good to a certain extent but then it just means when the adrenaline leaves I had this big crash afterwards. I have to go and have a nap for two hours and sleep it off.
“I was probably pushing myself a bit too hard whereas now I am a bit older and wiser. It’s now knowing that it's not actually a bad thing to pull out, looking after myself which then looks after the team as well. Because if I can’t function I am letting myself down and my team down.
“I get annoyed because it's [the cancer] something I can’t physically see, the fear of being pushed to the side and that you can’t play this weekend generally forces me to do better and to approach the game better.
“It’s a club that I’ve given a lot to but I’ve gotten a lot out of as well, if retirement was ever on the cards, if you ask any player, you want to retire on your own terms. I know why I have to go through these tests, it doesn’t make it any less annoying or tedious.
“You can get all that positive, negative attention with people like, 'how are you doing today?', and it's like, ‘I’m fine’. If I wasn’t fine I would be somewhere where I would be looked after. As long as I’m on my feet and I keep going then I’m good."
In August this year, Kapo won the Women’s player of the Year award in recognition of her efforts on and off the pitch. She is not only an extremely committed player but also acts as chairwoman for Richmond Women, a role she's had since the 2015/16 season.
“I act as a point of contact for the fresh faces coming in, player issues come via me and get fed through to the club. It’s being here on match days, being here for both the men and women and being at various different socials. There is a community aspect as well, so being down here on Sunday mornings and coaching the new-found girls section.
“It’s a really great distraction, even on game days even within my chairwoman role. I have to be here slightly earlier than game day because I am sorting out other things. Or I have come to the pre-match lunch with the men’s game if we’ve got a double header with the women’s game after.
“[On the pitch] The girls are just brilliant. I can be having a dip in the middle of the game, and it’s just giving me a bit of a shake to pick me back up, sort yourself out and let’s get on with it and you deal with your bit later. So yeah, for me it has been a bit of a lifeline.”
Kapo has seen many changes in the sport that has been her life her 17 years and one that is closer to her heart than most is diversity in the women's game.
She believes progress is being made and that it is becoming “a little bit more accepted" but more needs to be done.
She echoed the words of England and Harlequins forward Shaunagh Brown who, earlier this month spoke out about how rugby isn't just for 'middle-class white kids'.
Kapo said: “When I first started playing it was sort of a white canvas, there was that generic mould. I think there is a bit more diversity in the women’s game now just because it’s becoming a little bit more accepted.
“Up until recently, I used to joke that I was the token ‘native’ within us here at Richmond. Every so often you would get the black or mixed-race, Chinese and Japanese girl but, it was very much the individuals. It was very much one of us at a time.”
She believes that even a little change is a good thing, but that clubs still have a major responsibility in reaching out to the diverse communities.
“I think it's ensuring that if you are in a community that has a diverse collective mix of ethnicities and cultures, that rugby has that ability to unite all of those together. If clubs can outreach better then they should.
“That’s within schools as well, not just within the club community environment, whether it be players or club officials and volunteers there is a role for everybody, regardless of culture and background. It would be nice for it to be better represented and a bit more diverse. It’s going about it the right way I think, to make sure everyone feels included. It is an inclusive sport, it’s just getting it out there.”
Kapo singled out former England star Maggie Alphonsi as a figure who “really pushed boundaries.” She believes Alphonsi showed that “you can change perceptions” in the female game.
The forward believes that those from diverse backgrounds and away from “traditional white upper-class” backgrounds have a responsibility.
But she is aware there is a lot of history that's being challenged.
“We are a very traditional rugby club with very traditional values and in comes this really young mixed race girl who is going to come and challenge all the norms. I like to bang on doors and kick them down a little bit," she said.
Despite trying to inspire the next generation and breaking down sterotypes, some issues are beyond her control.
“Unfortunately you still hear comments here at the club, whether it be visiting or travelling supporters or just people who aren’t exposed to women’s rugby as much as they could be.
“These can be comments like ‘do you play on the same pitch?', ‘do you have the same rules?’, ‘do you have the same size ball? ‘do you tackle?’
“All women who play will appreciate that the game isn’t as fast and the collision isn’t as hard as the men’s game but it is still all relative to the women who are playing.
“I think Tyrrells have done a really great job of bringing the game a bit more to the forefront of people’s minds. So they can think ‘yep women’s rugby is a good product’, it just needs more investment and time behind it to really make the product grow.”
And tomorrow's home double-header, with the men kicking off at 3pm, followed by the women at 5pm, provides another opportunity to see just how well that product is growing.