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It says much about the journey rugby union still has to make towards equality that the woman who has been central to the remarkable revival of Leicester Tigers reveals she has had to contend with sexist attitudes even at the higher echelons of rugby administration.
The appointment of Andrea Pinchen as the first female chief executive of a Premiership club in May last year marked a watershed moment for the game in England. The former aviation security specialist insists her career has never been hindered by sexism. But her experiences show the game still has some way to go.
One example was in her previous role as chief operating officer at the club when she was asked by chairman Peter Tom to travel to Guernsey to meet a (unsuccessful) candidate for a coaching position.
“I was with Simon Cohen, the CEO at the time, and Peter who wanted me there for my opinion on the person we were interviewing, and on what he said, rather than from a rugby point of view.
“When the coach, who will remain nameless, walked in, he already knew Simon and introduced himself to Peter. And as I went to hold my hand out, he said to me, ‘I'll have some water, please’.
“Here I was, the chief operating officer of Leicester Tigers, the club this guy was applying to join. What was more amusing was the reaction of Peter and Simon, who were mortified and started saying, ‘I will get the water, I will get the water’ and almost had a scrap trying to get to the fridge first.”
Even after succeeding Cohen at the height of the pandemic storm, when the future of the club was in jeopardy because of the devastating financial impact, there have been times when she has faced similar attitudes.
“It's really interesting for me because it was something I never considered all the way through my career with the Tigers (she first joined the club in 2004 as ticket sales manager),” she adds. “And because prior to this, I was with Emirates Airline, and I was training in aviation security. So I was taking classes of 50 male Arab pilots, or state security and just standing there, talking about bombs, and hijacking!
“It was never anything that impeded me, and I've always thought whoever you are or whatever you stand for, you get a role on merit.
“And that being said, I would say that there have been some interesting incidents since I've been CEO that you would notice where people may come to you and ask you to do something that they perhaps wouldn't ask.
“So for instance, at Twickenham (before the Challenge Cup final last season) there were certain situations with EPCR (European Professional Club Rugby) wanting things to happen and they would not address the players, Steve Borthwick or any of the other coaches but made a beeline for me. And I was standing with our financial director as well but I was told, ‘you have got to do this’.
“I find it interesting rather than anything else and I end up having a bit of a wry smirk.”
Pinchen is a formidable force. There were times last year when she admits she feared the club would not make it through the financial crisis (the club lost over £10 million because of the lockdowns) and yet despite many sleepless nights, Leicester not only survived but have emerged as a coming force again, flourishing under the new coaching regime spearheaded by Borthwick.
“From the outside I think people looking in were saying, 'it’s Leicester Tigers, it is such an iconic club, it'll never fold, they will be fine',” she recalls. “On the inside, whilst you still wanted that belief - we all had to believe - you were working really hard to make sure that happened. And there were a few touch-and-go moments.
“I don't think any of us slept for a long time. I didn’t know what Zoom was before March 2020 and then you spend your whole life on it, morning, noon and night and at weekends trying to work with Peter Tom, the rest of the board and some of the staff in getting us through this in the best shape.”
That process involved taking some tough decisions, and not just financial ones. Some high-profile players, including club stalwart Manu Tuilagi, left in controversial circumstances, while Geordan Murphy also departed as director of rugby last November.
Borthwick was identified as the coach to build the club around and backed with a long-term plan to allow Leicester the time and space to rediscover themselves from a slump that had begun long before Covid hit.
“The flip of all the negative and horrific stuff that Covid has given the world, it gave us an opportunity to really stand back, assess everything that we had done and were doing and then say, ‘right look, if we're going to be the Leicester that we want to be, how are we going to do it?’
“We’d lost our way, we needed to get back on track.”
Pinchen has worked closely with Borthwick over recruitment and in identifying the right characters they want to build a team around, including a crop of brilliant, young talent such as Freddie Steward, George Martin, Jack van Poortvliet, Dan Kelly and Joe Heyes.
Under the leadership of new captain Ellis Genge, Leicester have built on the momentum of last season by winning their first three Premiership games to top the table ahead of their trip to London Irish on Saturday.
For Pinchen, though, it is just the start. She has just had a three-year plan signed off by the board, giving Borthwick the licence to look beyond the pressure of results.
“To alleviate the pressure sometimes I say to him to just look up for a minute, and recognise what you've done and what you've achieved,” she added. “And that doesn't mean we're going to stop because there’s so much more work to do. But where we have come from and where we are now, it's a huge step forward. And I think we'd said to everybody else, watch out, we’re coming back.”