EXCLUSIVE: England World Cup rugby star Maggie Alphonsi reveals the biggest challenge she's ever faced.... sexism in sport

Maggie Alphonsi is one of the most successful female rugby players of all time with seven Six Nations wins and a World Cup title (PA Images)
21:04pm, Sun 15 Sep 2019
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Maggie Alphonsi is one of the most successful female rugby players of all time - she has won a World Cup, seven consecutive Six Nations titles, captained her club, she was vice captain for her country and was awarded an MBE for services to rugby.          

But today, as she heads out to Japan where she is working as a pundit for the Rugby World Cup, she reveals one of the biggest battles she has ever had to face in her career - sexism.

 "Yeah I get sexist comments, especially when I first started. There were general comments about me commenting on a sport that is perceived to be male.

"You get those comments about my gender,  you know 'what would I know because I'm a woman'.

"Over time that has changed. You are still going to get those individuals who say because I'm a woman how can I comment on a certain player or how can I comment on the England men's team.

"Now I am more likely to have a debate with people about my opinion which is what you expect in any aspect of journalism.

"But when comments are targeted at my gender I think that's when it's not an argument."

Female pundits across a range of sports have been emerging, among them Alex Scott who featured in this year's Women's World Cup football commentary team. Alphonsi says that this is the right direction to go in to decrease the sexist comments aimed at women commentators.

"There's more of us out there now, it's still not easy, but in football there is Alex Scott, there are quite a few women doing it there. It is the same in rugby now - there are more of us and the same in cricket. I think people have to get used to it, it's the definition of it's there problem and no one else's because we're not going anywhere.

"The positive thing now across sport and the industry is that there are more women talking about sport and it's not gender we're talking about, it's about the sport that we know." 

Alphonsi captained her club side Saracens (PA Images)

Alphonsi also spoke about many other challenges she has experienced. The most prominent challenge while she was playing rugby was the psychological effects of playing at an elite level.

"I think while I was playing the thing that I struggled with is, you know women have a difficult time and I don't think it's talked about a lot.

"A lot of women, when we decide to become professional athletes, we have to decide to put our career on hold. Also, for many of us, we have to put the idea of starting a family on hold which is quite a scary thing for many women because you think 'do I wait until I'm 35 to start that process'.

"In the last part of my career I realised that this isn't just a sport I do for fun, this is a job and the goal is to win a World Cup.

"Unfortunately you start to experience challenges based on over analysis. You over analyse the way you perform, people's comments about you and social media started to become prevalant just as my career was ending.

"You start to lose the love for it because it is not about what you used to do when you were a kid, running on the field and trying to score a try and get mud on your knees.

"It was one of those things where I had to remember why I was doing it towards the end of my career and that's what kept me going if I'm honest because you start to lose the love."

Falling out of love with the sport is something she would discuss with the sports psychologist in the England camp, something she says was not available at Saracens

"I received psychological support with England but not at Saracens.

"I met my sports psychologist on a regular basis in the England camp because I felt I needed to speak to someone who wasn't part of the team. They were quite far removed so their opinion wasn't going to affect my selection.

"Some days you are just gutted that you haven't had a good training session or someone has been selected over you.

"Sometimes you need a sports psychologist to talk to just to say that it's okay that I had a bad day because tomorrow can be a better day. I spoke to them on a regular basis to make sure I had a really good balance to my life but also to how I was feeling about my last season for England."

Alphonsi hopes that in light of Saracens doubling their investment in the women's game that they invest in sports psychologists for women.

"Whenever we talk about professionalism we speak about conditioning, coaches, nutrition, facilities and that's all great. That's absolutely fantastic. But the rest of the athlete is the mental side and we should be looking after their mental health," she said.

"I really do hope they get a sports psychologist because it can help athletes - especially where these athletes are not full time - sometimes they need it more, they need someone to talk to on a regular basis to help with your psychology and mental well-being."

The former player is heading out to Japan to commentate on the men's World Cup - the only female to be a pundit (PA Images)

Along with Saracens, Worcester Warriors have invested in the women's game. They are paying their players for the first time. But Alphonsi has agreed with Richmond player Hannah Field that the investment may lead to less competition in the Premier 15s.

"Now what you want is for other clubs follow suit," she said. 

"What you don't want is a massive divide in the league. Ideally you want the league to remain competitive and also get further funding.

"I'd like to see every club have professional players, for all players to be paid to play and to provide those professional services to allow them to become better athletes. I just want them to have a professional set up, that's the big thing for me."

Despite her reservations, the former England captain believes the women's game is moving in the right direction.

"I hope the women's game continues to get stronger and I think it's going down that route. 

"I also want the women's game to get the profile it deserves, such as TV coverage, not just at international level but at club level. 

"It's also about having more female and diverse senior leaders too. I want to see that at every women's club and to have more female presence in senior leadership roles so we have that mix. It's been very male dominated in those senior roles and we need equality throughout the sport."

Alphonsi is heading to Japan to cover the World Cup with ITV. The competition starts on September 20, with England's first game on September 22 against Tonga.