Maggie The Machine Gets MBE
I first met Maggie when she was an unknown but fiercely determined 15-year-old playing regional rugby and hungry for success. Even then she stood out from the crowd and you would probably want to be at the back of it, or preferably down a side alley, if Margaret Alphonsi was charging through.
Now she is 28 with 63 England caps and hers is probably the first name anyone would come up with if asked to name a female rugby player. To her MBE, add the fact that she was the first woman ever awarded the Rugby Writers’ prestigious Pat Marshall Award, as well as being named Sunday Times sportswoman of the year, overtaking the likes of Jessica Ennis and Beth Tweddle.
“I first tried rugby at Salisbury Secondary School in Edmonton, where my PE teacher was Lisa Burgess, who captained the Wales women’s team. She sent me to train at Saracens when I was 14,” says Maggie. “I went with a friend, who soon decided it wasn’t for her, that cut the numbers by a quarter! There was just me and a couple of other girls there.
“With the help of Katie Ball, who ran the club’s junior section, we managed to get about seven young players together and I tasted my first competitive rugby at a festival. We played with reduced numbers, most girls’ teams in those days not being able to scrape a full 15 together.”
Soon she was playing for the regional team as well as being invited to development camps at Loughborough University.
“Then I was asked to go to Australia to play touch rugby for Great Britain,” says Maggie and that was a big turning point. A bit of a class clown, Maggie admits,“It was only PE that kept me on the straight and narrow. My poor mum had to come into school to defend me when I almost got suspended.
“But I was popular and a lot of my schoolmates were quite proud of my sporting ability. The Australia trip was being funded by players’ families and my mum is a single parent. She took out a loan but it wasn’t enough and I went to my Head of PE, Joanne Walker, who said if I took a bucket around every class she would double the amount I made. I raised between £200 and £300 and she was good to her word. Another PE teacher, Graham Webber, raised £500 in a sponsored event. I realised that if they cared about me that much I owed them and I’d better work for my GCSEs.”
Her academic work had picked up and she was soon in the England Women’s Development set up. With good grades in her GCSEs, she went on to Hertford Regional College to do a two-year BTEC in Leisure Studies and from there to De Montford University to get a Sport and Exercise Science degree. By the time she was 19 she was playing flanker in the England team.
Having been a naughty schoolgirl, she became an exemplary student. “Everyone else was going out, having fun, had a life. I didn’t want to drink, or even play rugby for the university team for fear of getting injured. It was three years of boring, serious hard graft.”
After securing her degree, Maggie went on to get a Masters in Sport and Exercise Assessment at Roehampton and also got a job with the Rugby Football Union for Women (RFUW) as a Club Coach Officer, working with women and girls in rugby clubs across the Thames Valley. She is now a Divisional Talent Development Officer, the RFUW having integrated with the men’s Rugby Football Union.
It was in the Women’s Rugby World Cup of 2006 that Sky commentators Dewi Morris and Stuart Barnes dubbed her Maggie the Machine and the nickname stuck. In the women’s last world tournament England lost to the New Zealand Black Ferns in the final by a mere three points (the equivalent of one kick over the crossbar). Maggie was magnificent but on her knees, head bowed when the final whistle went.
Among her sporting heroines growing up was Denise Lewis. “She was a real role model, with a similar background, the daughter of a single mum.”
Maggie’s mum has also been pivotal. “She always supported me in everything I wanted to do. She had played netball in Nigeria and came to the UK to university. She met my father, another student, but it didn’t work out and she brought me up on her own. I have tremendous love and respect for my mum, whatever I chose to do she helped me to do it. I was keen on music and she bought me first an acoustic and then an electric guitar.”
We laugh about Maggie’s high profile and “Is it because she is black!”
“When I got into sport I did feel that I was one of the few black women taking part and in the England team there have been very few. Paula George who was a tremendous captain and Maxine Edwards who was also a legendary England player were other players of an ethnic minority but I have pretty much been the only black player in the team over a decade.
“I do think that coming from an ethnic minority I have been breaking barriers and that has been a good promotional tool for my sport. It has helped to an extent, although first and foremost you have to be the best player to hang onto the shirt and I do see each award as a recognition of the whole team, of my team mates.
“There is good banter in camp and players wind me up, which is funny. We are very much a team sport and the team is very supportive because the more that female players get recognised the better. Michaela Staniford was voted International Rugby Board 7s Player of the Year, which was fantastic, especially now that sevens is becoming an Olympic sport.
“If I’m honest I would love women’s rugby to be professional. I do think women will one day make a living out of playing rugby, that they will be paid as professional athletes. Sky Sports are giving us more and more coverage and our girls are gaining a higher profile.”
But what of the injury risks? I know that Maggie has lost two front teeth and wears a denture. “Ah,” laughs Maggie, “That’s from my stupid days when I went to got a little tipsy and fell down. If I’d been playing rugby I’d have been wearing a mouth guard!”
She speculate whether she’ll pay £6,000 to have implants when she retires from the game and recalling having to do a player interview on Sky with her gumshield in because she had left her denture in the team changing room.
“Not many people see me without my front teeth but perhaps they should. Who knows I could give women who wear dentures more confidence!”
Now she and her mum, who works in the Nigerian embassy in London, will be off to Buckingham Palace.
“When I saw the official looking envelope I thought it was notification of jury service,” she says. “I didn’t want to open it because I didn’t want to miss any rugby. I had to read it several times to believe it and then I rang my mum at work. I don’t think she ever expected to go with her daughter to meet the Queen. She’ll probably wear something bright with a very big hat!”