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  • Writer's pictureKaren Gasbarino

The Evolution of a World Class Manager: IRFU’s Alana Gattinger and her Canadian Roots

It’s not bold to suggest that if you’re a keen rugby supporter in Canada, you know the name Alana Gattinger. Further, if you know who Alana is, you can’t help but be proud of the work she's done to represent Canada – and women in sport management – in both Major League Rugby and on the world stage. Over the last few years, Gattinger has arguably been one of the key individuals who drive, shape, and support our sport off the pitch. And that is gender notwithstanding.

Alana is truly one-of-a-kind.

The title of this piece could have been Bearing Witness to Alana Gattinger’s Bucket List. Certainly in the last decade, she has managed to check off a fair few of her own goals.

All this impact she's had. And yet, she’s still young.

Whitby Ontario’s own 34 year old Gattinger has held a handful of impressive roles in recent history. And while the ride she’s on has resembled more of a wild roller coaster than meandering stream, she’s enjoyed nearly every moment. Even the lows of her collective experience have been great learning opportunities, paving the way for something even more remarkable around the next bend. All it’s taken is some patience and her vast network - not to mention the CV that speaks for itself - and Gattinger inevitably climbs another wrung or two.

Back in 2012, post-graduation from her Masters’ in Sports Management from the University of Ottawa, Gattinger got a great opportunity to intern with Rugby Canada’s events team working under Jennifer Smart. Smart basically sums up the Gattinger Effect in a few words: “Working with Alana during my time at Rugby Canada was an absolute pleasure. I knew from the start that she would be something special. For someone coming from outside the world of Rugby, she took to the sport and all the nuances of operating live games and events really quickly. I remember she had a real knack for the team services side of things, and all the team managers she worked with - from both within our own programs and from visiting teams - loved her. The day she left my department to move over to the National Men’s Fifteens Team full time marked the start of her inevitable rise in the world of Rugby. You’ll be hard pressed to find anyone more driven or focused. She’s a rare talent who makes everyone around her better, and you won’t find a person more deserving of the accolades. I know she’ll continue to climb mountains and possibly shatter another glass ceiling or two along the way.”

On the timeline, it appears on paper that Gattinger’s ascension in the ranks at Rugby Canada was on the quick side. Even to Alana herself, the last decade-plus has seemed like a whirlwind, packed with all the milestones she has accomplished and all the goals she has crossed off the bucket list.

And the list is indeed impressive.

Take for instance her first World Cup experience in England 2015. It was a tremendous learning ground for Gattinger, who had graduated from her internship to a full time position only months before being asked to attend the World Cup with the men’s senior team.

Then she continued her hard work with Rugby Canada until she found herself promoted to the Manager of the men’s senior team. By the time World Cup 2019 rolled around, Gattinger was celebrated not just here at home but throughout World Rugby as the first woman manager of a men’s team. Huge win for women in rugby in general, and huge honour for Gattinger. And while she didn’t personally love the attention she garnered for the appointment, she understood it. She got the impact it would have on women striving for leadership roles; for that fact alone she was proud to be the pioneer.

But then the inevitable.

As we all know, very shortly the pandemic was upon us. While things were already tight for Rugby Canada, covid-19 made it impossible to keep all their staff, and Gattinger found herself pounding the pavement.

But not for long.

Gattinger could have jumped sports. Rugby not being her life-long sport of choice, there were endless possibilities. But by then it was too late for Alana; like many of us the values we uphold in rugby had her firmly entrenched in the sport. Plus, she felt there was more yet to do.

She’d done men’s international rugby. Her next goal was representing in professional ball. Gattinger’s reputation preceding her, it wasn’t long before a great opportunity presented itself to work for two seasons with the former LA Giltinis of Major League Rugby. Despite the Giltini’s less-than-ceremonial end, Gattinger loved her time with the team, and learned a tremendous amount about the differences between professional rugby and national ball. The first season was spent on the commercial side learning about that aspect, with her second season with the team getting her back to her team manager roots, the role she loves and excels at most.

It’s hard to say if she’d still be there; when LA was eliminated from the MLR toward the end of the 2022 season, Gattinger was again firing off her resume.

A temporary opportunity to work with Hong Kong Rugby proved to be another feather in the Rugby Cap for Alana; another valuable opportunity and information to tuck into her wealth of knowledge. A glimpse into how a very different country and part of the world runs their programs. And of course, another tick off the bucket list.

When the Chicago Hounds of Major League Rugby were announced to be joining MLR for the 2023 season, Gattinger was again celebrated for landing a great role within the organization. She joined the team with gusto, and loved every moment of helping them set it up and get it going.

So, when the next opportunity - the one that had thus far alluded Gattinger - came along, she was at a crossroads with a big decision to make. Feeling loyal to the Hounds, she was torn. But after a few discussions with James English, she knew what must be done to further her rugby journey.

Truth be told, Gattinger had already sent her resume to the IRFU, though she had applied for other positions overseas in the past without success, and she didn’t have a VISA, so she didn’t put much stock in it. So when she didn’t hear back, she took on the Hounds role. “Chicago was a great option and the people there are outstanding,” she says. And believe it or not, in a few short months, she made an impact and helped them prepare for their inaugural season.

Within weeks, Alana Gattinger found herself in Dublin. This time to represent the senior women’s team for the IRFU. The biggest checkmark on the bucket list thus far; Gattinger is finally realizing a long-standing dream to live internationally, and to be involved in one of the biggest organizations in the world, in a rugby-mad environment, and working with a tremendous group of individuals. Of making the decision to accept the opportunity Gattinger says, “working in the International game has been my passion and this opportunity allowed me the chance to get back into international rugby – so I had to jump at it.” Her lifestyle also allowed for a quick move. It seemed destined to be.

“I landed at 8 am and was already at a rugby match by 2 pm. Luckily I live very near the Aviva Stadium so I was able to get over to see the men’s team take on France in the Six Nations.” What an introduction to the IRFU, arriving as the men take the Grand Slam in the annual tournament and put space between them and ‘the rest’ in the world rankings mere months before the World Cup. I said I believe it is the best time for a Canadian changemaker to find herself in the best place possible at the best time; Gattinger agreed.

The added bonus: The Women’s Six Nations is drawing record crowds, record excitement, and record support. Exciting times for Alana, the new Women’s Fifteens National Programs Manager - to continue to make an impact in rugby.

Gattinger’s role entails handling the day to day functioning of the senior women’s team at the IRFU High Performance Centre, as well as attending tours, logistics, and day to day operations. Then as National Programs Manager, she will oversee the U20 and U18 competitions. She’ll also work with other team managers brought on to “upskill people in those roles throughout Ireland.”

While Gattinger has never loved the limelight, she understands the responsibility she has in occupying the manager role. Recognizing that it is a unique position, Gattinger has reluctantly allowed the attention. Happy to support away from the limelight (“I do this job because I love the behind the scenes aspect of it and letting everybody else shine,” she says), Gattinger does see that any positive attention is great to grow women representing in all roles within the sport. “Sometimes what motivates me is getting plenty of messages from parents or girls within the sport who have said that what I am doing is inspirational and made them want to do it too. It helps me see that what I am doing is worthwhile.” It is a great feeling for Gattinger to mentor, to celebrate other women, and to pass the torch to the next generation of strong women.

The one regret in Alana’s rugby journey is that she never got to play.

Rugby is such an inclusive sport, one for every body type, that she is certain her taller-than-average body shape would have fit in beautifully. She celebrates that aspect of Rugby, and just wishes those opportunities had existed for her at the time. Perhaps that’s why she’s as passionate about growing the sport as she is, to get the oval ball into more young hands. To share the values of rugby that we all celebrate. “Rugby’s really given me a lot of confidence in myself,” she says. She would have benefitted so much from it as a youth.

The last month has been a whirlwind for Gattinger, who is embracing her new role fully. She loves working in the team environment, and feels so fortunate to still be making an impact in the game she loves. She says “I’ve had a great first month in the role, the full team of players and staff have been very welcoming and made me feel at home with the group right away!” It feels like longer than a month since she hit the ground running.

It has been amazing to watch Gattinger’s rise in World Rugby. She has not only benefited from the variety of experiences she has been given, but she has had this amazing fortitude to bounce back from the inevitable budget cuts and disappointments to get back up, dust off, and move on to the next great opportunity. What’s more, it’s been so satisfying to see Gattinger’s rise. There is genuinely no one more deserving. And the best thing? She’s a proud product of Rugby Canada.

While the roots are Canadian bred, the focus for the foreseeable is all green.

The goal is to grow along with the Ireland women in the best time to be part of the IRFU. To that end, Gattinger says she’s “proud of the performances and results of the Senior Men’s and U20s teams in their respective 6 Nations tournaments, and hope that their success as Grand Slam winners in both will shed some positive attention on Irish rugby and lead to more interest in the women’s game. More eyes on rugby is a great thing!”

They certainly are, Alana. And more eyes on women doing great things in rugby is also a great thing.

Here’s to many more years of Alana Gattinger doing great things for rugby, women in rugby, and to further her own success.

And oh, to cross more off the bucket list, of course.

Karen L. Gasbarino, April 2023

Rugby Hive Editor

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