For Maggie Alphonsi, playing rugby at the highest level is a feeling like no other and one she misses constantly.
But the England and World Cup winner concedes even she would face a battle to keep up with the latest batch of rising stars, such is the standard within the game currently.
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Flanker Alphonsi hung up her boots in 2014 after a stellar career which included seven successive Women’s Six Nations triumphs with England, including six Grand Slams, and then the World Cup success preceding her retirement.
Her achievements also saw her inducted into the World Rugby Hall of Fame in 2016 but despite pushing the boundaries when it came to women’s rugby, the 34-year-old believes other players having taken on the baton to move the sport on to another level still.
“I miss it all the time and I want to play now. Women’s rugby is getting so much more attention that what I had when I was about and the standard has progressed,” she said.
“It’s exciting to see how far the women’s game has come and where it is going to go. That’s a sign that the standard has gone to another level when you think that you would love to come back but I would not necessarily at the same standard as some of the young guns.
“It was my responsibility and other people of my generation to take on the work that had already been done by those before us and now what is great is that there are so many other young women coming through who are just taking it to an even bigger level.
“I thought I was a good player but if I was a player now would I still be that high standard in comparison to some of the players who are coming through at 18 years old?
“Ellie Kildunne is an amazing athlete, Abigail Dow, Charlotte Pearce – these people are a lot younger than me and they are impressive.”
Alphonsi was known for being a player for the big occasions and would have no doubt relished taking to the field last Saturday as France and England battled it out in front of a world record crowd of 17,440 – even if the result did go against her team in the dying moments.
France now sit in pole position to win their first Women’s Six Nations title in two years while victory in Wales on Friday night would confirm a first Grand Slam since 2014 – although England, who play Ireland at the same time, still have an outside chance of retaining their title if results in Wales went their way.
And Alphonsi believes this year’s edition of the Championship has continued to promote all that is good about women’s rugby with every match in this year’s Championship available to viewers in the six nations either on TV or via online streams on sixnationsrugby.com, giving fans the chance the follow the narrative of the Championship whether their own team is involved or not.
“Talking to people who don’t normally watch women’s rugby and have watched it this year, they’ve been impressed with the standard,” she added.
“They see some amazing attacking tries. The scores might be quite large but what people are impressed with is the quality of those scores.
“That’s what has been a shining light for the Women’s Six Nations, every year I feel the standard has improved and nations are realised that if you want to compete you have to keep pushing your players and the structures within your nations.”
Growing up on a council estate and also born with a club foot, Alphonsi refused to let her personal situation hold her back on the pitch as she established herself as one of the world’s best.
Since retiring, she has also continued to lead the way and in 2015 became the first-ever former female player to commentate on a men’s international match when she worked as part of ITV’s team for the Rugby World Cup.
But she is not the sort of individual to be caught resting on her laurels.
“I’ve taken my upbringing into my sporting life and my sporting life into now my professional career post rugby,” she explained.
“I’m still wanting to improve. I treat my broadcasting like I was a rugby player, how can I improve?
“I continue to have elocution lessons and broadcasting training and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Actually I’m very proud of it.
“When I was young, one of my old coaches Geoff Richards said to me ‘don’t just be good in England, best the best in the world.’
“It’s that mindset he had from Australia and he put that on me. My mum was very similar and told me to be the best I can be.
“When I came into the England squad, I was very proud but I didn’t just want to be another player and another number. I wanted to be the best I could be and leave a mark.
“Globally women’s rugby is starting to get that respect and reputation for both 15s and 7s rugby.
“We are seeing progress and change but there is nothing wrong with banging that drum and seeing what else can achieve.”
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