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Maggie Alphonsi: 'With Joe Marler, the reality is that's social media'

By Liam Heagney
Maggie Alphonsi, the 2014 Rugby World Cup winner with England (Photo by James Chance/Getty Images)

Maggie Alphonsi can’t wait. A trip to France to commentate on England as they look to clinch a sixth successive Guinness Six Nations title. Bring it.

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For sure, her live appearance on the BBC will be a tad more glamourous pitchside at Stade Chaban-Delmas rather than sitting in her car front seat and battling a dodgy Zoom connection via iPhone in London, as was the case with RugbyPass.

Alphonsi was on the line to talk on behalf of Sage, the official insights partner of the women’s Six Nations. She nailed her brief, referencing a myriad of details casting light on a sport that is gripping the hearts and minds of so many new fans in England 16 months out from the start of Rugby World Cup 2025.

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There was plenty more to chew, though. The personalities she would like to see emerge more. First impression of the John Mitchell era. Women in broadcasting. Her X spat with Joe Marler. There was also the debt of gratitude the sport owes to its amateur era pioneers, the ladies who demonstrated incredible foresight in starting up the World Cup, the tournament the English won for the first time 30 years ago this past week.

Let’s start with the numbers and the Alphonsi mission to better inform Six Nations viewers. “Yes, I do use a lot of the stats,” she enthusiastically explained. “I like to think I’m quite a stat-geek, so it’s deciphering and going through a lot of stats and seeing what is relevant when I speak to the public.

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“The stats that have always stood out have been the amount of passes players make in the women’s game. Generally, compared to the men’s, you tend to see more passes and less kicking, so the pass-to-kick ratio I always find quite fascinating.

“In the men’s game, you probably talk more about how many kicks there are, the distance of the kicks, and how many kicks there are in play. I do always look at the stats and find it useful to build my knowledge, but also to provide greater insight to those watching, especially in comparison to the men’s game because there are different things you tend to look for that stand out more in the women’s game.”

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The wealth of information now available is night and day compared to when the now 40-year-old Alphonsi was in her pomp in the England back row, her stellar career culminating in 2014 World Cup success after a multitude of Six Nations title wins, seven in a row including six Grand Slams.

“I wish there were more (stats) when I was playing. We’re so fortunate to have this because the greater the insights, the more depth enables those watching the game for the first time or just starting to become fans of the women’s game to build a picture. They start to understand how teams play and also it gives them a good general understanding before going into a game of what teams do.

“There wasn’t a lot of stats out there for the women’s game when I was playing and now we are starting to build up this wealth of knowledge and it will only grow. Obviously, the men have got so much. You can go back and look at something that happened in 19-something and you can just base that on where we currently are now.”

Is there one statistical area the women’s Test game is short on at the minute? “What we have got now is actually quite really good. For the women’s game, it’s building on it because we haven’t got a lot of statistical data that goes back as far as the men, so we just need more of that.

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“But another thing we could add into the women’s game is what I see with Saracens in men’s and women’s. We do a lot of work around cohesion stats; how many times certain players have played with each other and when you build up the cohesion combined together, does that improve better decision making, quality of passes, ball in play.

“So looking at cohesion time or minutes that players have played together, does that improve performance? There isn’t a specific stat for that but that is a nice area to look at. Saracens women and men do it incredibly well in terms of looking at time together and how that pays off in terms of performance, points, and tries.”

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Ex-England back-rower Maggie Alphonsi (Photo via Sage)

What’s coming over the hill for women’s rugby in England is fascinating. Recent games have lacked jeopardy, as they have hammered their Six Nations rivals, but that hasn’t stopped people from voting with their feet and coming in through the turnstiles in increased numbers.

There was just short of 20,000 last month in Bristol, nearly 50,000 last week in London and it suggests a very different type of World Cup is looming in contrast to 2010 when England lost the final to New Zealand in front of 13,000 at the Twickenham Stoop after earlier round matches were staged in a low-key way in Guildford.

“2010 was brilliant but you are absolutely right; it was held at Surrey Sports Park and Harlequins Stoop, and there were just effectively two training pitches really. To think we are going to be playing at stadiums and we will hopefully be selling out some and then the final at Twickenham will be amazing.

“The interest has really grown and it’s fantastic. We need to continue to grow interest in the women’s game, particularly when we talk about the women’s Six Nations, making sure the games are more competitive. Greater jeopardy always creates greater interest.

“Another area we can consistently do work on is the visibility of the game, that games are broadcast. The more you show these athletes on TV, we are telling their stories. Those two bits will add to help drive it. And then just ensuring we are consistently taking the game around the country.

“The best thing about 2025 is it’s going to be in eight cities, eight venues around the country, starting in Sunderland which has always been a football-orientated area. To think we have got a women’s rugby match going there is brilliant. Those are the key bits we need to continue to do to keep driving the interest in our game.”

New England boss Mitchell is four games into his tenure and ahead of Saturday’s Grand Slam showdown in France, Alphonsi has been impressed with what’s cooking. “What we have seen with John Mitchell’s blueprint of this England side is that he is obviously trying to allow them to play an expansive game, so you feel like now there is slightly greater ambition.

“They are willing and wanting to play a wide game so their back three are coming off their positions, coming into the game in the back line, so there is a level of ambition and willingness to want to attack. England during World Cup 2022 were criticised quite a lot for being very forwards orientated, scoring most of their tries through the lineout driving maul.

“You can’t really criticise them because they were scoring tries, but what we wanted to see from England was a slightly more expansive game utilising their dangerous backs. We are starting to see that now under Mitchell. I feel it’s coming together. Mitchell is very much trying to get the team and the players just to play what is in front of them rather than a structured strategy of ‘this is how we always play’.”

Mention of athletes and storytelling, which of the current England crop would Alphonsi like to hear more about. “Hannah Botterman, great personality, great character. But also she has played some very good rugby in the Six Nations and that comes with the competitive nature that his England team have created.

“Sarah Bern, who is currently injured. It’s all the props to be fair, they always seem to have a personality and you don’t always get to see it in the way they play. So Sarah Bern, Hannah Botterman. If we look at the backline I’d like to see more from the likes of Tatyana Heard, a very good player at No12.

“Especially in that midfield position there are a lot of players who are very strong, who you know already like your Emily Scarratts etc, but it would be nice to hear more from the likes of Tatyana Heard, Holly Aitchison.

“Actually what has been quite fascinating is seeing how the back three have started to come out of their shell. So Jessica Breach is becoming a well-known character. Ellie Kildunne as well, I love hearing about her personality. All of them really.

“The more we can shine a light and hear about them. Sometimes people assume that women players are not like the guys in terms of it being all serious and they don’t have the personalities. But a lot of these women are fantastic. They’re hilarious, they’re intelligent, they’re interesting just like you get with the men, so we must shine a spotlight on them and hear their stories.”

Along the way, Alphonsi will fight her corner in the sharp-tongued world of broadcasting. Women in punditry, especially football, have been targeted lately. She even had her run-in last August on social media with Marler, the England men’s loosehead. She didn’t back down and fair play to her.

“It’s great to see more women working across broadcasting in various sports and having different perspectives on the sport they are talking about. Women working in the men’s game and men working in the women’s, it’s a good thing. I’m pleased there is a greater variety of people out there now.

“The negativity around women working in broadcasting, it’s very frustrating to see. Especially when talking about social media, it brings out the best and the worst of people but the key thing is we just get on with it. I’m not going to let social media pull me down, I’m not to let certain individuals pull me down.

“My big focus is talking to those that want to listen and also inspiring the next women and girls out there who want to be broadcasters because it is not about me, it’s about growing our game and making sure that many more people will get to see the positiveness of it.

“Yes, Joe Marler put out an emoji to me and I put an emoji back and the reality is I keep doing what I do and he keeps doing what he does and neither of us will let any of that affect the thing that we do. I continue to be in broadcast, that is my big goal, inspiring the next generation. That is my big focus… With Joe Marler, the reality is that is social media and I have no further comment on that.”

Rugby means the world to Alphonsi. Despite being born with a club foot and growing up on a council estate in Lewisham in a single-parent family, the sport opened doors. “I was quite a challenging child. I was a smart child but I found myself getting into quite a lot of trouble so if I wasn’t in rugby, I don’t think I’d have a big focus.

“I love my music. I played the acoustic guitar, electric guitar so I would have taken music a lot further just because I found it really enjoyable. Like sport, it gave me something to be disciplined in but rugby really did save my life. It gave me structure, gave me people around me that kept me in check, and it also gave me something I could find my strengths in.

“I’d hate to think what I’d do without rugby. Rugby has been quite key to me like it has for many women and men around the world. It saved us and it has given us a career, a future, and a family, so I’m very grateful.”

Especially to those who broke the mould in the late 80s/early 90s. “The players today are getting a lot of recognition just for being great athletes and they are professional athletes, and then my team which won the 2014 World Cup, we got some recognition. But actually the people who should be getting it and truly deserve it are the ones who started the game and enabled us to even have a World Cup.

“Seeing what those women went through to enable us to have a World Cup, the start of the first World Cup, I’m so pleased they are getting known for what they did. People are starting to know their names, starting to know the journey they went on, and the sacrifices they had to put themselves through to enable us to have what we have today.

“It’s really important that players like me, who have now retired, and players that are playing today, we owe them. We are forever in debt to them because if it wasn’t for them there wouldn’t be what we have today. I’m glad they are finally getting the visibility they deserve.”

  • Maggie Alphonsi was speaking on behalf of Sage, the official insights partner of the women’s Six Nations. For more information visit www.sage.com/rugby

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