As Black History Month begins, the World Rugby Hall of Famer discusses her unconventional upbringing, rugby, racism and looking to the future
By Gail Davis
Last Updated: 01/10/20 3:10pm
In her playing days, Maggie Alphonsi smashed through every obstacle that stood in her way.
She was fearless, committed and like all good No 7s was always one step ahead of the game. Those same attributes have served her pretty well in life too.
It is why when you ask somebody to name a female rugby player it is nearly always Maggie that comes to mind – despite having been retired since 2014.
Alphonsi’s childhood was far from conventional as she was in and out of hospital as a young girl after being born with a club foot. It might have floored a few, especially someone who was desperate to be tearing around even as a toddler, but Alphonsi just cracked on with it – it was going to take more than that to slow this girl down even then.
She grew up on a council estate in Lewisham in a single-parent family. And while there were some around her who lacked aspiration and drive, Alphonsi attributes her doggedness and bulldog spirit to those early years.
“Opportunities were low. My mum was a single parent and an amazing woman, she had two jobs so I could have a life,” Alphonsi told Sky Sports News.
“She was driven and determined, and still is now. In the environment I grew up in, there were lots of single-parent families without much money but we all had this same attitude – if you want to be successful you have to work really, really hard, go above and beyond, it was drummed into us.”
There were times growing up, though, when Alphonsi found herself lost. As a headstrong student she became disruptive and was close to being expelled. It was her PE teacher Liza Burgess who encouraged Alphonsi to give rugby a go, and her love for the game was immediate.
“I went to Saracens and they gave me a rugby ball and said ‘go and run and try and tackle’,” Alphonsi said.
“It was the most amazing thing. I have always been strong and aggressive but I had never found a sport which matched my strengths. I was encouraged to be aggressive and I flourished in it and I did well.”
She had regained her focus and found a sport that fitted her characteristics, but it took a bit longer before she really found her calling as a No 7.
Alphonsi made her England debut at inside centre in 2003 at the age of 19 but she had to wait another agonising year to play for England again because of severe injuries. All of which helped mould her, but it was only when she stopped playing that she really appreciated it.
“When I look back I didn’t realise they were challenges at the time, I just got on with it. Often the key to successful athletes is not realising what they had to overcome, it’s when you stop and look at the path. They think ‘wow I had many barriers I am so pleased I got through it’. Many would have stopped and taken a different path.”
The women’s game is certainly thankful Alphonsi found her way to Cockfosters and Saracens training ground that day. Eye-catching and technically brilliant performances during the Women’s Rugby World Cup in 2010, hosted in England, earned her the nickname ‘Maggie the Machine’.
Despite England losing the final to New Zealand, an army of new fans were converted to the sport. A decade on, Alphonsi has not got over that loss but concedes it might have helped the development of the game and women’s sport as a whole.
Four years later, having fought back from a horror knee injury and 20 months out, Alphonsi and England beat Canada in the final to lift the 2014 Women’s Rugby World Cup.
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“Rugby was back in the spotlight,” she said. “We didn’t get a bus tour like the men in 2003 but we did go to No 10 Downing Street.
“There were a number of accolades and we were recognised with various awards. We were on the front pages of newspapers with the trophy.”
Alphonsi retired soon after, and while it is often not helpful for the development of the women’s game to compare it to the men’s, part of her appeal was that she probably could have given some of the men a run for their money.
She grew up studying the likes of Richie McCaw and even got to train with Saracens during her England days.
“Owen Farrell might choose to forget it but I did put him on his backside during one session,” Alphonsi said. “I played like the guys as they were the ones I could watch. As I got older there were more women I could see.”
Up until recently, Alphonsi’s biggest challenge in sport has been the sexism she has endured since swapping playing for punditry.
The World Cup winner was one of the first females to commentate on the men’s game and has covered two Rugby World Cups.
Unsurprisingly she took it all in her stride. She did what she has done throughout her life and worked really hard at being the best and believes most have been won over.
A battle that she knows will take more than just her hard work to win surrounds the events from May 25 earlier this year.
George Floyd’s death has changed her forever. Alphonsi is about to give birth and she is determined to do everything she can so her little boy can grow up in a more accepting society.
“I never experienced racism until 2020. I grew up in a very diverse environment which was brilliant. No one took a second look because we were all different,” she said.
“When I played my rugby I was usually the minority in the team but my experience was that I never received racism, although it doesn’t mean it wasn’t there.
“I have never really thought about racism. It has never been a part of my world until George Floyd and Black Lives Matter. It’s so inspirational to see athletes from across sports making a stand, protesting and sharing their stories and experiences.
“And I think it is important now, when you have a platform, to speak out. I had racist abuse on social media and I have to learn now how to approach it. I am not going to become quiet now because someone chooses to end an argument with a racist comment. It’s made me much stronger.
“Education is so important as we all have a part to play regardless of the colour of our skin if we are going to make this world a bit more diverse and inclusive. I want to make sure the next generation has more opportunities and we are a world that is more accepting of each other.”
The focus for now for Alphonsi is making sure her little boy arrives safe and well into the world but do not expect her to take her eye off the ball for long.
The sport she loves, as well as the Rugby Football Union (RFU) – where she is one of only a handful of women and the only BAME representative on the council – are, she says, doing their best to become more inclusive but there is some way to go.
Despite not looking like the rest of the board, Alphonsi believes she has the respect of her peers because of her playing background. Governance is where she feels she can make a real difference in terms of diversity and it is why she is determined to one day be the first black and the first woman to be president of the RFU.
“I am putting it out there. There aren’t many women who put out their goals and intentions and once it is out there people start believing in you,” Alphonsi said.
Even so, it is unlikely there are too many who would dare to stop her.