Women's rugby: Maggie Alphonsi racking up conversions
England's journey to the World Cup final has heralded a major reappraisal of the sport
Maggie Alphonsi MBE wears the mantle of a pioneer lightly. In daily life, the openside flanker in the England rugby union team who will today contest the final of the seventh women's Rugby World Cup against Canada in Paris makes the same cheery contact with the committed soulmate proudly wearing the white jersey and red rose as she does with the dumbfounded or just plain dumb who have little understanding of her chosen sport.
"The general Joe Bloggs you meet in the street or at Sainsbury's may have watched women's rugby a bit on TV," says Alphonsi, who is 30 years of age and 5ft 4in in height. "They will always say, 'You look a lot smaller in real life, how do you manage to play this game when you're so petite?' And you kind of go along with it, while emphasising that, actually, it's not a problem. I'm not bonkers; I've been doing it since I was young, I'm conditioned for it, I love what I do and I wouldn't change it for the world."
The world title returning to England for the first time since they won the second tournament in 1994 would be another step on the road to a reappraisal of women's rugby. "People used to perceive forwards as always being a certain size and ability and gender," says Alphonsi (pictured). "Now England have 15 great athletes on the pitch and everyone can be that athlete. There's always people out there whose minds you have to change. All you can say to them is, 'You've just got to watch it'."
And watch it they are. Two million viewers tuned in to the World Cup group stage on French terrestrial television last weekend, and a capacity crowd of 20,000 will attend this evening's dénouement at the Stade Jean Bouin, next door to the Parc des Princes, or should that be Princesses.
The English Women's Rugby Football Union were integrated into the main RFU a few years ago and Su Carty, the world governing body's development manager, claims women and girls can play in all 122 of the International Rugby Board's member nations, including national teams in Iran and Egypt, where cultural taboos are an extra obstacle.
There are small groups of full-time professionals in Canada, Brazil and Ireland, who have contracted seven-a-side players in preparation for the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. But almost all the England World Cup squad are essentially amateurs, who fit training and playing around their jobs. They trained together three days a month earlier in the year and had to take sabbaticals to gather for 10 weeks before the tournament. Invited to consider whether the higher profile enjoyed by the current tournament represents a Rubicon crossed, Alphonsi says: "Sevens programmes are going down the professional route, and I think 15s will too, and it's a good thing: it allows individuals the opportunity to train hard and rest appropriately. Mind you, I love taking myself away from rugby and concentrating on something else." Albeit her day job as of tomorrow will include being an ambassador for the men's Rugby World Cup in England next year.
Girls are playing in increasing numbers in clubs, schools and colleges, and the best reason to debunk the myths is to ensure no prospective youngster is put off from having a go – if they think they're hard enough. Alphonsi's vital statistics when England drew 13-13 with Canada in a group match eight days ago included 29 tackles and eight stitches above an eyebrow.
"The scrums and line-outs are always a nice battle between us," she says. "And the breakdown will be a big area in the final. In our England team it's our bread and butter."
And what of Magali Harvey, Canada's star turn on the wing? "We'll put pressure on her," Alphonsi says, "don't worry about that."
Comparisons with men's rugby can be invidious or rewarding. There was a slow-motion try scored by Canada from a ruck in their semi-final win over France last Wednesday that no self-respecting men's team would have conceded. On the other hand, the women have played with a freedom of expression and spirit that feels like a welcome antidote to the pumped-up physical spectacle and creeping cynicism of a men's match.
"Our tackles are as impacting and intense as the men's," argues Alphonsi. "And the pace and the agility are at another level compared to when I started playing at 13 or 14. It used to be a couple of individuals who could do that; now you have entire teams."
England team to face Canada D Waterman (Bristol); K Merchant (Worcester), E Scarratt (Lichfield), R Burford (Thurrock), K Wilson (Bristol); K Mclean (Darlington Mowden Park Sharks, capt), N Hunt (Lichfield); R Clark (Worcester), V Fleetwood (Lichfield), S Hemming (Bristol), T Taylor (Darlington Mowden Park Sharks), J McGilchrist (Wasps), M Packer (Wasps), M Alphonsi (Saracens), S Hunter (Lichfield). Replacements: E Croker (Richmond), L Keates (Worcester), R Essex (Richmond), A Matthews (Richmond), L Mason (Wasps), C Large (Worcester), C Allan (Richmond).
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