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Rosie Galligan: 'Marlie Packer really has had a stellar career and still has so much more to give'

By Rosie Galligan
PARMA, ITALY - MARCH 24: Marlie Packer of England poses for a photo with members of the crowd after being presented with a rose to celebrate her 100th appearance at full-time following the team's victory in the Guinness Women's Six Nations 2024 match between Italy and England at Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi on March 24, 2024 in Parma, Italy. (Photo by Chris Ricco - RFU/The RFU Collection via Getty Images)

And just like that, the first round of the Women’s Six Nations is complete! A little rusty from a few teams, but I’m sure that many of the girls were just excited to play rugby and wear their nations’ emblems again. The excitement to sing your anthem, get ball in hand and play on the biggest stage is never taken for granted.

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I wasn’t selected for the Italy game but I decided to make the most of a solo trip to sunny Parma! Not only was it the first game of the tournament, it was also Marlie Packer’s 100th appearance in an England shirt.

From the 5-year-old girl in a red frilly top covered in mud picking up a rugby ball for the first time, to World Rugby Women’s Player of the Year 2023, England captain and now a centurion, Marlie Packer really has had a stellar career, and still has so much more to give.

Throughout the week there were articles and videos appearing on social media about the openside flanker and her journey. It’s fair to say Marlie has had her fair share of peaks and troughs throughout her career, however, she has always faced adversity front on and come out stronger.

Marlie is a player you would ‘take to war’ with you – she’s a player that would ‘put her head in the spokes’ and ‘not take a backwards step’. On the flip side to those statements (quoted by current and former coaches), she is also the ‘heartbeat of the Red Roses team’. She has a heart of gold, welcomes people with open arms and epitomises what is it to be a Red Rose.

On Saturday night, I attended the shirt presentation where Sarah Hunter was presenting Marlie with her gold rose and shirt. It was really nice to hear Sunter speak about her career and some of the off-field memories from their playing days.

Marlie also received a scrapbook which was made up of pictures and messages from over 90 people. There were messages from former Red Roses including Sue Dorrington, Karen Almond and Gill Burns, as well as former coaches Graham Smith, Giselle Mather, and her family.

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On the morning of the game, her family were waiting by the bus to wave her off to the stadium. They stood proud with their flags and printed t-shirts with her face on the front and the details of her 100 games played on the back. It’s always hard to reach a big milestone game abroad as you don’t have the support of the home crowd, but seeing her family would have been a special start to the day.

It’s fair to say I’m not a good spectator. I find it hard to sit still and watch the game as a normal fan when I know the playbook inside out! I could see what the girls were doing, trying to play a new style of rugby, but it just wasn’t quite coming off in the first half.

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We were trying to move a little bit too early and then not kicking when the opportunity was on. Needless to say, the red card would have also caused some uncertainty. I was told it was really calm at half-time, Mitch [John Mitchell] told the team to trust themselves and ‘take the handbrake off’. There were probably a few tactical elements that he touched on and you could see that the girls changed up how they played in the second half. It was a positive start and we started to showcase what we wanted to do.

You can never underestimate Italy, they’ve always got something up their sleeves and they had a really good defensive stint in that first 40 minutes.

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In the second half, it was probably just that fitness element that started to creep in. We work so hard to be the fittest team in the competition that we pride ourselves on that and the fact that we can go a full 80. Italy did really well to cause England some challenges, they put a lot of pressure on the breakdown and we knew that was something that they were going to do.

Post-game there was a cap celebration for Maddie Feaunati receiving her first cap. Maddie’s family surprised her by flying over from New Zealand – it will definitely be a day that the family remember forever! Marlie was awarded her gold cap by the RFU president. She also received a gold cap trophy which is awarded by someone who has played a role in the player’s rugby journey and there was no one else better to do that than Marlie’s inspiration – her mum.

Marlie finished the proceedings by telling people to ‘stop looking at her now’ having got emotional thanking people for the day.

So… game one is done, now it’s time for game two. Wales at Ashton Gate Stadium with over 18,000 fans attending. The last 5 years have seen the Red Roses beat Wales significantly, but could this year be different? Wales are into their second year of professionalism, meaning more time spent with each other, and training full time. With a number of Welsh players playing in the PWR, there will be familiar battles on the pitch tomorrow.

I’m really looking forward to the front-row battle; Maud Muir and Hannah Botterman up against Donna Rose and Gwenllian Pyrs. Having seen the battles in the PWR, I think the game could be influenced majorly by forward set piece.

In the backs, Holly Aitchison comes head to head with Gloucester-Hartpury’s, Lleucu George. With different playing styles, it will be interesting to see which tactician has the best game plan on the day.

Lastly, it is Zoe Aldcroft’s 50th Cap and it is a privilege to be working alongside her in the engine room. Zoe is a different breed (she won’t mind me saying that!). She is a world-class player who will play through broken bones – quite literally, as well as an incredible human. I look forward to seeing her run out at Ashton Gate on Saturday.

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