“Playing in the final against New Zealand, singing the national anthem and having about 14,000 in there, singing the anthem back to you, it fills you with a lot of emotions and you feel very passionate about your country, what you stand for and what you’re there for.”
Passionately patriotic and with an unwavering desire to succeed, England’s Maggie Alphonsi has achieved everything possible as a player. From winning Grand Slams to helping her country to the World Cup title, she has done it all. But it certainly hasn’t come easy.
Growing up on a council estate in Lewisham in a single-parent family, Alphonsi was a troubled youth and caused herself problems at school. It wasn’t until rugby entered her life that things began to change.
“I started playing through my secondary school. At school I was a very sporty kid, but lacked discipline and behaviour, so I got into trouble quite a lot. My PE teacher at the time, Lisa Burgess, who had played for the Welsh rugby team, said: ‘I think it’d be good for someone like you to try rugby out because of your behaviour and your attitude and your stature, it’d do you some good’.”
Putting her trust in this advice, Alphonsi headed down to her local rugby club, Saracens Amateurs on Bramley Road, and fell in love with the game.
“With other sports like netball, which I was quite good at, I got penalised a lot for just being a bit physical and it’s a non-contact sport. Rugby was where I could be physical and be strong and be praised for it.”
Not only did Alphonsi find a purpose and an identity in rugby, she managed to overcome a club foot to fulfil her dreams of becoming an athlete and representing her country in the sport she loves.
“It’s been part of my life, so it’s not something I’ve really thought about, but what I’ve had to accommodate whilst being an athlete is the fact that I don’t have the muscle flexibility in the right hand side where my foot is, so I’ve got a slight limp and I’m gaited a little bit differently in terms of the way that I walk and run.
“I’ve had hamstring tears, I’ve had knee problems and back issues that I have to stay on top of, but in the training that you do and the exercises that you do I always have to compensate and make sure that I stay on top the issues I have.
“However, as an athlete I just got on with it. With my trainer we would do a lot of work around strengthening the right hand side, or when doing any form of weights exercise, I had to make sure I was balanced and my technique was good and had to compensate on my left hand side to help my right hand side out so it wouldn’t cause me further problems down the line. It was about working on making sure my muscles on the right hand side of my body were equal to my left.”
Despite so many struggles in her life, Alphonsi’s determination to reach the pinnacle of her sport meant she was able to overcome them all. She was constantly looking to improve, to be the best player she could be and she will go down in the sport’s history as one of its greatest.
“I guess my mum and the various influences I’ve had in my life have always told me if you really want to achieve you’ve got to work damn hard to be successful and that’s been drummed into me from a young age.
“Up until year 9, when I started playing rugby, I was quite a naughty kid and when I found rugby I just switched on and my attitude was very much ‘I need to work hard to be successful, get your GCSEs, A levels, university, etc’ and I’ve taken that mindset into my sporting world. If you’re going to do something always be the best you can be, always show your best self and that’s what I’ve always tried to do when playing rugby.
“If I can be the best tackler, I’ll be the best tackler; if I’m not going to be the best tackler, then I’m going to be the smartest person on the pitch, so I’ve always tried to be the best that I can be in my field, because there are always people out there who can overtake you.
“When you see people who can provide equal skills to what you can, my attitude was always what can I do to make myself a little bit different or be better? I did look at Richie McCaw and how he keeps reinventing himself; an amazing athlete, competing with young players from his own team but also across the world in David Pocock, Michael Hooper, and so on and you’ve still got to keep yourself ahead of the game. This guy still kept doing it, so you’ve got to be able to reinvent yourself and become a physical player, a fit player and then a smart player. That’s always what has driven me.”
Now retired, Alphonsi is continuing to reinvent herself as an ambassador for the sport she loves so much, working diligently to promote its growth. She was recently elected to the RFU’s Council and is its first member to be a female England player.
“I will be working in the growth committee and the player development committee so my aim is to help grow the game and to increase diversity in the sport. I want to help find ways of getting more ethnic minority individuals into the game, those not necessarily associated with the game or individuals who don’t normally play rugby and to get more women and girls into it as well. I’m privileged and honoured to be part of the Council and to be able to contribute and leave a legacy. There’s a lot of good work happening now and I’m just looking forward to adding my input.”
Additionally, Alphonsi has been working with the RFU on the ‘Spirit of Rugby’ project, which aims to involve people not normally associated with rugby through specially organised sessions and events.
“I am thrilled to be the Spirit of Rugby Ambassador for England Rugby; it’s such an amazing project that will have a real impact on the lives and development of young people and the game. The volunteers I have met so far are all outstanding and show that if you give young people opportunities they can achieve great things.
“Our next event is in Liverpool on August 11 at the Liverpool One shopping centre. That event is all about encouraging more women and girls to try out the game. Women’s rugby is a sport for the many, not the few. If you’re looking for something different, something you haven’t done before and you want a new challenge, then try rugby. Whether you’re tall or small, fast or powerful, tactical or combative, you’ll be amazed to see what you can achieve on the pitch, and I’m going to be on hand to give the women and girls in Liverpool some tips on August 11.”
Moreover, she is keen to stress the importance of continuing to develop grassroots rugby.
“At the top of the game it is pretty much sorted, I think we need to continue to work on the grassroots, working with clubs to help support their structures, identify and develop coaches and volunteers in the game.
“When we think about rugby it’s one big game: men’s, women’s, young people, it’s everyone’s, so we need to make sure that there is support there at those clubs to make sure there are coaches there to support the women’s and girls’ sections and to ensure that there is a pathway for those players.
“We see a lot of girls coming into minis, let’s say they found it through their brothers or their dads, and then they have to stop playing at the age of 12 because they can’t mix with the boys. Usually there’s nothing available to those girls until the age of 16 and by then you sometimes lose players along the way to other sports like football, netball, hockey. We need to find a way of bridging that gap, ensure those structures are there at a grassroots level. We need to increase the talent pool at the bottom of the game because it’s only going to benefit the top end of the talent pathway.”
She is also deeply encouraged by the work the RFU has done to keep England ahead of the pack in international rugby. The governing body recently announced it would be introducing professional contracts for fifteens players, the first national organisation to do so.
“England has always been leading the way in terms of female rugby players, but then other countries have caught up; teams like Canada, USA, France, these teams have just progressed significantly over the last few years. For England, it is incredibly important for them now to bring in these professional contracts to take it to another level. What we’ve seen in any sport and any walk of life is that if you take that first step others will start to follow, so you’ll hopefully start to see other teams having professional contracts for fifteens.
“In the sevens the first team to go professional was the Dutch and then the Spanish and then everyone else started to follow them and that’s made a massive difference in the world of sevens for women.
“I think the key thing though is to make sure that these players are heavily supported, particularly in terms of retirement and making sure that they have that support to transition back into the working world which is always a challenge for any player whose been a full-time athlete.”
Similarly, she sees sevens’ inclusion at the Olympic Games as a significant springboard for the sport as a whole.
“The Olympics, being the biggest tournament in the world which will be watched by millions of people, will only raise the sport’s profile because it’s going to be on the same stage as the likes of Usain Bolt and Jessica Ennis-Hill. That’s going to make a huge difference.
“You don’t necessarily see a lot of sevens on TV, but during the Olympics it’s going to be out there. When you see it, you believe it and that’s what’s going to be good about it. You can showcase the skills, the talent, the speed and the excitement of the game. It’s going to grow the game which is exactly what we need.”
Just like sevens in the Olympics, Maggie has been breaking new ground in her media work. She became the first ever former female player to commentate on men’s international rugby when signed up by ITV to be a pundit at last year’s Rugby World Cup and has now agreed a 2-year deal to cover the men’s Six Nations with them. In women’s rugby she is working with Sky Sports, BT Sport and the BBC, as well as on the Aviva Premiership and the men and women’s international sevens. In her search to become better and better, she is looking to cross over into becoming a multi-sport broadcaster.
As part of a World Cup-winning team, Alphonsi helped the country to start paying women’s rugby the attention it deserves. Now as an ambassador for the sport and her work in the media, she is performing just as hard off the pitch to continue to promote the growth of the game. With an inspirational person like Alphonsi spearheading change, rugby is going to go from strength to strength.
Paul Wassell, Pundit Arena