Published: 20 October 2023.
From ‘statistic’ in a North London council estate to rugby World Cup winner, Maggie Alphonsi is the ultimate success story. On the back of her debut book launch Winning the Fight, Vitality Magazine asks how a once rebellious Maggie found her passion for the sport and overcame the adversities she faced along the way.
Like her personality, Maggie Alphonsi’s past is a colourful one. With a perpetual habit for school-yard fighting and disruptive behaviour in the classroom, she found herself staring down the barrel of expulsion on more than one occasion.
Little did she know her passion for physicality and ability to ‘hold her own’, something she learnt from an “exhilarating” bust up in a playing field behind her council-owned flat block in Edmonton, North London, that she was paving the way for ‘Maggie the Machine’ to shine on the rugby field.
A black woman from a single-parent household, it was not living in London’s concrete jungle that led Maggie to discover the sport she ended up conquering, however. Football ruled her patch.
“Rugby is not a focus where I grew up. You either like Tottenham or you like Arsenal”
Born a girl and with a club foot, being allowed to play with the boys would come with at a price: she would have to play in goal.
“When I played sport at school, I felt like I stood out. I have big arms, big legs; I wasn’t great at netball. I played hockey and I was stuck in goal, at football I was stuck in goal,” she explains.
The powers at play would have to find another way to introduce Maggie to the sport she would go on to make a career out of. This would so happen to be a chance encounter in a school corridor, which piqued Maggie’s rebellious curiosity.
“I bumped into my female PE teacher. A lady called Liza Burgess. She had a black eye and bruises, and I was really intrigued by that, so I asked what she’d done. She told me she played rugby union, and I was just blown away it, I wanted to know what it was.”
Oblivious to the fact that this was Liza Burgess, the Wales rugby star who captained the national team’s first Test match against England in 1987 when Maggie was just four years’ old, she uncharacteristically followed the advice of her teacher.
That weekend, a wet-behind-the-ears Maggie jumped on the bus to Cockfosters to her local rugby club, which so happened to be Saracens. This set in motion a career that would inspire an entire generation of sporting women.
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‘Being different was normal’
Maggie doesn’t shy away from the fact that she grew up as a “statistic”: a black woman from a low economic, single-parent family. But living in the melting pot of London’s council estate ecosystem, being different felt normal.
Her trip to Saracens changed all that.
“It was really the first time that I felt like I fitted in, and I think that’s why the sport still resonates with me because there’s a place for you,” Maggie admits.
“When I played other sports, I felt like I stood out. I have big arms, big legs. But when I was playing rugby, I could run; run as fast as I could and tackle as hard as I could. It was a sport that made me feel like I could fit in regardless of my size or my shape or my stature.”
Maggie had been released from the shackles from her goalkeeping days, and nothing was going to hold her back.
“Growing up in London, I was a statistic, a person of colour, low economic background and almost fell into a number rather than being a person. But when I was playing rugby, my identity shone through.
“It didn’t just change my life; it saved it. If it wasn’t for rugby, I’d hate to think where I would be because it gave me the friends, the family, the career and my sense of identity.”
Among the highs of an 11-year international career were seven consecutive Six Nations titles, six Grand Slam wins in seven years and a career-defining tackle on a then 18-year-old Owen Farrell, who would go onto become England men’s skipper, watched on by another men’s rugby laureate, Eddie Jones.
But a cloud of injustices would cast a shadow over Maggie’s career on the rugby field. “When I first came into sport, as a woman, it felt like you were a second-class citizen,” she acknowledges.
“I hate saying it or thinking about it, but that’s what it felt like. You also felt very ‘grateful’ – that’s the word I would use to sum up the early part of my career – even though there were a lot of inequalities.”
Not even writing her way into the history books with a World Cup win would give her the respect she commanded after retirement. Male counterpart pundits would earn pay cheques for their appearances, while an equally – if not more – successful Maggie would have to settle for being “grateful” for the opportunity, once again.
“I am [of course] grateful, but at the same time myself and many other people have worked incredibly hard to get where we are.”
Since retiring, though, the acceleration of the women’s game has been more than she would ever anticipate. “I’m pleased to be part of that change with many others, and what I love about women in sport is that we’re all progressing together, so when one boat rises, we all do and that’s what it feels like right now.”
Both England’s women’s national netball and football teams made it to World Cup finals within two weeks of each other, while the women’s cricket team drew in 5.3 million viewers on live TV for this year’s Ashes, more than doubling the audience of the 2019 series.
“There are so many more women doing amazing things in women’s sport who are definitely breaking down barriers and changing the perception of it as well.
“I’m really pleased with where it’s come from and where it’s going and I’m pleased to still be part of it, just as long as I’m not the last of it.”
But challenges remain. Both the BBC and ITV turned down the chance to broadcast the Red Roses’ friendly against Canada in September, despite being offered the rights for no cost, according to The Telegraph. Instead, fans will have to settle for the RFU’s YouTube channel to watch the match.
Armed with a straight-talking nature, Maggie isn’t afraid to admit that she’s had barriers to overcome. A minority among her teammates, a black woman in a same-sex marriage who chose to play rugby in a world where football was king.
Now, she wants more people to do the same.
“Regardless of where your starting point is, whether it’s a deprived council estate or an affluent background, it doesn’t matter where you started. I want people to take from my story that you can step out of your comfort zone, you can challenge yourself, you can own your goals, you can bounce back when hurdles knock you down.
“I know it’s cheesy, but aim high, find something you want to go for and go for it.”
While we all might not want to become one of the most physically brilliant flankers in the world, change the course of women’s rugby as we know it or land a biography of our own, Maggie hopes her story is one that can inspire others to follow on their own path to success.
At Vitality, we’re all about encouraging our members to make small positive lifestyle choices that can make a big impact to their lives.