Maggie Alphonsi knows from personal experience how important it is for young girls to have role models in their lives. Without hers, she would never have become the inspiration for the latest generation looking for fulfilment in sport. Never in a million years.
Alphonsi’s cv just oozes with enviable citations: a member of England’s Rugby World Cup-winning team in 2014, which led to the Team of the Year title at the BBC Sports Personality Awards; player of the tournament at the 2006 World Cup; 74 caps for her country, during which she scored 24 tries; and an integral part of ITV’s rugby coverage for the men’s World Cup and Six Nations Championship. Oh, and she also has an MBE.
But the 32 year old was not always a trailblazer, and at one time in her teens certainly did not look destined to be someone to whom today’s up-and-coming sportswomen can aspire.
Bought up by a single parent on a council estate in Edmonton, north London, Alphonsi readily admits she behaved badly at school and regularly played truant. She rebelled at secondary school, badly enough to risk expulsion. It was only when she was given a PE ban did the sports-mad teenager evaluate her behaviour.
“Growing up, I didn’t have role models,” she explained. “People around me didn’t have much ambition. They didn’t have jobs, they didn’t want to go to school. I loved sport at school, I was captain of a few teams, so I reacted badly to being banned from doing games.
“But then one day I saw my PE teacher, Lisa Burgess, with a black eye. I said, ‘Miss, what is it you do?’ And she explained she played rugby for Saracens and Wales and told me I should give it a go. I was 14, 5ft 3 and weighed around 70kg [about 11 stones], much like I am now, and it suited me. I was in an environment where you were encouraged to be competitive, aggressive and physical, and I flourished.”
Playing at Saracens, Alphonsi attracted the attention of the GB Touch Rugby team and soon received her first international call-up. But she was to discover first-hand that the route to playing professional rugby as a woman was far from easy: she needed £2,000 for a trip to Australia.
She recalled: “I asked my head of year, ‘Can you help?’ She said yes. They gave me a bucket and made me stand every day in assembly raising money. I raised £500 and then the teachers doubled it. They started doing fundraising activities, too, and I was off to Australia. We didn’t do very well – I didn’t tell my teachers that! But I came back with the goal of playing for England. I wanted people to know my name and to inspire others.”
That she managed it is undisputed. Alphonsi made her England debut in 2003 against USA and played in her first World Cup in 2006 when England lost in the final to New Zealand 25-10. Alphonsi was devastated. But a call from the IRB was some consolation: she was invited to their annual awards dinner where she won Best Player.
Now her ambition shifted upwards. She wanted to be a world champion. Unhappily, the 2010 final was a repeat of the heartache suffered in 2006. This time a last-gasp penalty saw the reigning world champions beat England 13-10 on home soil and left Alphonsi contemplating retirement. “I had let my family and friends down. I asked myself, ‘What do I do? Do I retire?’” she said.
“But there were personal achievements. I won the Sunday Times Sportswoman of the Year award, and for the first and only time in my life beat the likes of Jess Ennis-Hill and Becky Adlington! I was also asked to be an ambassador for the 2015 Rugby World Cup. To be considered as a figurehead for such an iconic event was very special. And I received my MBE in 2011, too. Those personal achievements were fantastic, but I still wanted to be world champion.” That dream came true in 2014. After 11 years of hard work, Alphonsi lifted the World Cup in Paris when England beat Canada 21-9.
After retiring from rugby, Alphonsi set her sights on the Olympic Games, where she wanted to represent Great Britain in the shot in Rio. “I did it before rugby so thought I’d give it a go. But I came up short, I was much smaller than the competition,” she explained. “It wasn’t about quitting, but about reassessing your life ambitions.”
Alphonsi became the first female rugby pundit when she joined ITV for their coverage of the (men’s) World Cup in 2015 and starred in a series Samsung advertisements with Jack Whitehall. Her playing credentials are more than enough to qualify her for the role, and she is well aware that in front of the cameras she is also representing women in sport. That she has reached that far shows what it is possible for women to achieve, and that is not something Alphonsi takes lightly.
“Life is measured by the impact you have on other people,” she said. “It’s about who you want to inspire, who you can be a role model for. One voice can have a major impact. So you have to ask yourself, ‘What can you do to inspire others?’”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Laura Winter is a sports journalist, presenter and event host. She worked in sports communications for the International Rowing Federation for two years, before working and training as a journalist in Gloucestershire, covering a variety of sports including rugby, boxing, football, and triathlon. She then turned freelance at the end of 2014 and is part of the team who founded Voxwomen, a women’s cycling show that seeks to give the female elite peloton the coverage they deserve. Laura’s latest articles.