Almost 10 years ago Zainab Alema stumbled upon the opportunity to play rugby when a PE teacher suggested a game at her secondary school in Chiswick.

Though most of her female classmates did not have a taste for the sport, for Alema the moment was fated. “As soon as I touched the ball, I loved it,” she said.

It was by “pure chance” she found her passion in life. As a black, Muslim female she gained rare access into a traditionally elite, white, male game.

A decade of playing rugby later, Alema, 27, was crowned the Sunday Times Grassroots Sportswoman of the Year 2020 in an online ceremony last week.

Awarded to those who make an outstanding contribution towards keeping women’s sport alive in the local community, she was recognised for her projects which widen participation in rugby.

Inspired by her experience breaking into the field, Alema has made it her mission to see more diversity in one of Britain’s favourite games.

Richmond and Twickenham Times: Zainab Alema with her three children Zainab Alema with her three children

Her own rugby journey was not always an easy ride. Whilst studying as a neonatal nurse at University in Hertfordshire Alema admits, “I began to struggle within myself, with my identity.”

Other than her hero, England Rugby player Maggie Alphonsi, there were few other players that looked like her, which could feel isolating. “I was playing in under-layers, long sleeves and a headscarf while other teammates bared their nice legs in shorts,” she said.

Alema also felt excluded by the off-pitch culture, as it focused heavily on alcohol. Often, she would win woman of the match, and just as often would have to nominate someone else to down her pint.

But Alema says she “came into her own” after she left university, playing for Millwall before moving to her current team Barnes RFC.

“I had the best time – I met the most amazing bunch of women. When I was transitioning to Barnes, I was heavily pregnant, so I would go along and cheer them on from the side-lines with my big belly.”

Three children and a career as a neonatal nurse later, Alema lives in West London and is still playing at Barnes.

Richmond and Twickenham Times: Zainab Alema in scrubsZainab Alema in scrubs

“It’s dubbed as friendliest club in London. Even though it’s a more white and middle class area, I’ve felt at home ever since came through doors,” she said.

It was here her teammate secretly nominated her for the Sunday Times Grassroots award, following the success of her ‘Studs in the mud’ and ‘Muslimah Rugby’ projects.

The former is a charity that arranges donations of rugby equipment to be sent to Ghana, while the latter encourages participation from Muslim women.

Alema's hope is that with funding and solid sponsorship, she can make the game reflective of everyone.

“I want to give people a pathway to the sport. I know in the black Asian ethnic minority community there is so much talent. I want there to be more representation - from the players all the way up to the people making decisions in boardrooms.

Nicknamed ‘The Bulldozer’ after her position as No 8 at Millwall, where she was required to shift the ball past the No 10, Alema believes the label has taken on extra momentum.

“It’s about my identity. I’m a nurse, mother and rugby player. I’m also an ethnic minority. I like to think I smash stereotypes.”

Last week, Alema said her 4-year-old daughter announced she wanted to start playing rugby. With Alema's encouragement, it looks like there will be plenty more bulldozers to come.