Our series continues as we look back at the lasting memories a rugby player has and what has followed since. Up next, it’s Maggie Alphonsi.
Few players in recent times have had such an impact on the world stage as former England flanker and World Cup winner, Alphonsi.
On the field of battle, Alphonsi’s achievements are endless; Rugby World Cup winner, 74 caps, 20 tries, World Player of the Year, Writers Player of the Year, Sunday Times Woman Sportsman of the Year, an MBE for services to sport and the first woman to be inducted into the World Rugby Hall of Fame.
But, paradoxically, it’s Alphonsi’s work off the pitch as a beacon for inclusive sport that has been her most decisive contribution. A tearaway flanker forged from hard work but with the ability to spot the opportunity, Alphonsi is clear in her own mind of the platform rugby gave her to drive change and to promote the skill and dedication of women in sport:
“I’d been around the England squad since 2003 and back then, there were no real direct financial benefits or rewards for playing for your country. Indeed, we played for fun and as a timeline, we were still maybe 15 years behind the men’s game, playing in an amateur era for fun and love of the game alone!
“But in 2010, England hosted the World Cup and thanks to some favourable media coverage and a great tournament where England fell just short in the final (losing 13-10 at the Stoop) the public imagination was ignited and the profile gained huge momentum,” reminisced Alphonsi.
“At this time, I was working for the RFU as a Club Development Officer and Talent Development Officer. I didn’t see rugby as a full-time job itself, but I became aware of the opportunity that had been created to drive the sport as both an ambassador and as a pioneer of women’s professionalism.”
That World Cup Final at the Stoop lives long in the memory of many rugby fans. Despite magnificent performances by England, and Alphonsi herself, the accuracy of Black Fern Kelly Brazier’s boot proved the difference between the sides, but the public appetite was whetted suitably to expect great things of the England Women in the following years. In 2014, in Paris, England’s Roses brought the World Cup home beating Canada 21-9 in a final televised worldwide, a tournament which took the sport to new levels of fitness, skill and excellence.
“Just before the World Cup, around 2012, I decided to leave the RFU to take up some other opportunities that had, in part, been created by the 2010 tournament. I was offered an ambassadorial role at the Youth Sport Trust and I felt that, with greater training demands now being placed upon us, I needed to achieve a stronger work/life balance,” explained the former England flanker.
“The role with the YST morphed into that of ‘Athlete Mentor’ and that, together with the start of some speaking and educational work, allowed me to enter the 2014 competition in great form, both physically and, crucially, mentally.
“2014 was indeed a watershed, both personally and for the game as a whole. The win caught the public imagination and with other trends driving the agenda for inclusion and change within the game, we emerged both as a team and a group of individuals with the respect of the sporting public, something that was priceless.
“However, the RFU funding of the Women’s game is cyclical; rightly or wrongly, the funding works in two year blocks, alternating between Sevens and the full game, something that is still a frustration even today.
“I realised that my body was struggling from the hits, the weight sessions, the tackles. That, combined with the public profile the game had gathered, meant I simply wanted to call it a day on the pitch, but equally, I was keen on seizing the opportunities we’d created to fulfil personal and pastoral ambitions.
“My goals were to drive inclusion, business practice with sporting overtones; how teams operate under pressure and to inspire the younger generation. I wanted to catalyst female participation and to demonstrate the pathway to athletic excellence.
“A huge turning point for me was the 2015 World Cup. Firstly, I was absolutely honoured to be named as one of the official ambassadors for the competition, but the opportunity to work for ITV Sport as one of the anchor pundits for the tournament came up. I became the first woman to ever commentate on men’s sport at this level,” she noted.
“I was so proud to be there on technical merit, as an athlete and as someone who’d experienced a World Cup.
“Yes, I was nervous. I expected to hear ‘Oh there’s a new face; what do you know about the game anyway?’ and perhaps other comments, but there were none. People didn’t appear to see my gender; they saw a technical expert in back-row play whose knowledge had been earned the hard way, and that, above all, was what I wanted. Acceptance through performance, knowledge and merit, and nothing else!” explained a proud Alphonsi.
“I also believe that the technical aspects of the Women’s game are very refined. There’s less of a reliance on mismatch of bulk and size in our side of game so technique is everything and I believe I was able to expand upon a lot of the skill delivery and analysis in that tournament,” she affirmed.
“After the tournament, it cemented my desire to maximise the platform I had. My goals were to continue being a good pundit and to show, regardless of upbringing and inclination, that anyone could play the sport. Most of all, I was part of a team again in the comm box, and one that was contributing positively.
“I want to continue in this vein, mixing commentary with other ambassadorial and public speaking work. Already, we’re seeing the likes of Alex Scott on football and my dear friend Ebony Rainsford-Brent on cricket delivering insight on both men’s and women’s sport and that’s fantastic.
“I am also now on the RFU Council, the youngest ever to be elected, and from there, I can assist drive change and challenge more traditional thinking. My mantra is ‘it’s a game for everyone, regardless of…’ and that appears to be working.
“Best of all, the work we did in rugby in 2010-2014 has now been mirrored by the England Ladies Cricket side and I have to admit I was supporting them greatly. It was also amazing to meet Anya Shrubsole and compare notes on how our sports had progressed. They’re gaining the same momentum we did in 2014 and that’s quite astonishing to witness.
“This column was titled ‘Life After Rugby’. The simple truth is I had a life before rugby, but now, my life is intertwined inexorably with the game. It’s a life in rugby and a life in sport, and I assure you, I’d not want to change a thing.”
Maggie ‘The Machine’ Alphonsi MBE is arguably the greatest openside flanker England has produced. A World Cup winner with 74 caps and 20 tries, her dynamic performances have won admiration around the world. An RFU Council Member, Maggie now divides her time between her TV Work, Public Speaking, her RFU Honorary work and her charitable commitments. Maggie also is a Telegraph Columnist and will be resuming her punditry with ITV during the Six Nations. We thank Maggie for her time and Life After Rugby will be back next month. For more information on Maggie go to: www.maggiealphonsi.co.uk
by James While