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People: Women's World Cup winner Maggie Alphonsi talks about her new role as an RFU ambassador

Former England international rugby player

Published in Sports Management 02 May 2016 issue 119
After 70 caps for England, Alphonisi wants to inspire others to change their lives through sport
After 70 caps for England, Alphonisi wants to inspire others to change their lives through sport

“I do inspirational talks for businesses, schools, universities – basically anyone who will listen,” says Maggie Alphonsi with a chuckle, before reverting to a more serious tone. “I try and highlight the fact that I’ve come from a really challenging set-up and managed to maintain a career in rugby and earn a Master’s degree while doing so.”

Alphonsi talks candidly about growing up on a council estate in North London and the fact that she was born with a club foot. But despite describing herself as a “horrendously naughty kid at school”, the Women’s Rugby World Cup winner overcame the obstacles to carve out a successful career – something she has continued into retirement. Those experiences, she says, will stand her in good stead in her new role as ambassador for the Rugby Football Union’s (RFU) Spirit of Rugby initiative, which aims to entice 16-24 year-olds in deprived and isolated areas into taking up the sport.

“I’ll work with the volunteers on the project, tell them about my journey and give them advice to keep going,” Alphonsi explains. “I will emphasise that rugby has changed my life and it can do the same for them. They don’t have to be good at it, it can change their life as a volunteer, coach or referee.”

The two-year scheme, funded by Spirit of 2012, launched last August in 15 locations around the country – from Cumbria to East Kent. It aims not only to increase participation within the 16-24 demographic, but also to boost the number of volunteers and give youngsters the chance to have careers in rugby away from the field of play.

Alphonsi says that while the improvement of mental wellbeing and physical fitness was an important aspect of the scheme, she is keen to highlight the “transfer of skills” that can be brought from rugby into a working environment such as “leadership skills, management skills and discipline”.

Her first engagement as an ambassador was meeting volunteers at the game’s spiritual home of Twickenham who were learning about such career opportunities. Alphonsi gave a speech to youngsters alongside RFU chief executive Ian Ritchie and rugby development director Steve Grainger.

The former England international, who won 70 caps, reveals that her main goals are to increase the profile of the sport with non-rugby people and to engage with people in communities such as Eastern European and South Asian who haven’t traditionally had a close relationship with rugby.

Alphonsi pinpoints Liverpool – “a massive football area” – as a location she’s keen to target, as well as people with disabilities and those from lower socioeconomic groups. The importance of increasing participation among girls and young women is also stressed, and Alphonsi talks about an innovative project in Darlington, called Scrum Down, Scrub Up, in which beauty therapists are being targeted to take part.

Post-retirement (Alphonsi retired shortly after England’s World Cup win in 2014) has been a busy time for Alphonsi, who has taken on a number of endeavours “out of my comfort zone”. She initially tried to qualify for the 2016 Rio Olympics in the shot put discipline, but found the transition of going from a team sport to a solo sport “really challenging”.

An appearance on BBC One’s All Star Choir for Children in Need also beckoned, with Alphonsi reminding Sports Management that the subsequent single Wake Me Up went to number one in the charts.

But for now the ex-Saracens flanker is happy to concentrate on her motivational speaking engagements and her burgeoning career as a pundit after debuting on ITV during the 2016 Six Nations.

“Ideally I want to become a very good pundit, become a more regular, feature on TV and encourage more women to take those steps,” she says.

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