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Maggie Alphonsi revealed her illustrious rugby career would not have been possible without the foundations laid by grassroots rugby, writes Josh Graham.
Alphonsi was introduced to the sport as a 14-year-old by her teacher and then Saracens women’s player Liza Burgess, who encouraged her to rock up at Bramley Road.
The Rugby Hall of Famer said: “I remember being on the public park, trying to avoid the dog poo.
“But at the same time, I loved that the ground was a community ground and people came out to support the boys, girls, men and women that played at the club.
“Every Saturday and Sunday it was busy - you’d go into the clubhouse, and it was such a nice environment. And that is one of the things I missed the most, which is why I went back into coaching to be part of that again.
“My journey to elite rugby was a long one but the best part of my career has been in my grassroots experience.”
Alphonsi juggles her punditry work with the voluntary role of assistant coach at High Wycombe Rugby Club and believes it is vital professional players maintain that bond with the place where it all began.
She added: “I’m quite lucky that I had a good side to start with and was part of a great club in Saracens.
“Everyone’s got their own grassroots journey which has defined them and their success.
“I think it’s really important that professional players maintain a bond with their local club.
“It’s vital when players go on to represent England that people know where they started out to help foster that connection with the professional ranks.”
England women are the No.1 ranked side in the world after beating France in the Six Nations final in April, and again in Lille, leaving the game in a strong place.
And Alphonsi said: “It was brilliant seeing 10,000 fans back at Twickenham for both the Challenge Cup and Champions Cup finals.
“Having crowds back is one thing we have missed for a very long time in the world and I'm looking forward to those numbers increasing.”
There is certainly a feel-good factor around rugby with clubhouses opening their doors and welcoming punters inside for the first time in six months as restrictions ease.
Alphonsi says the Allianz Premier 15s final between her old side Saracens and Harlequins at Gloucester’s Kingsholm Stadium – won by Quins 25-17 – can ride the wave of rugby’s resurgence.
She said: “Over the last few years, the Prem 15s has really developed, and the investment is starting to pay off with the games getting much closer.
“The semi-finals a few years ago might not have been that close but we saw, especially with Saracens beating Loughborough by four points, how tight the results were.
“It just highlights how the competition is getting stronger and the talent pathway is getting bigger and better.
“And having it on TV on BT Sport for the first time gives the tournament great exposure. It enables us to show off the domestic game and how great a product it is.
“It’s important for people to see just how good these female athletes are.”
Now that girls have very successful rugby role models visible on TV, Alphonsi believes it is more important than ever that local sides invest in their facilities to help attract new female players.
The NatWest RugbyForce ambassador said: “Some young girls might not come to clubs because the club might not have the appropriate facilities for girls and it’s really important to make sure that development is being supported and the overall clubhouse is suitable for everyone.
“It’s about preparing clubs for the players of tomorrow. It’s just doing the basics, making sure the toilets are up to scratch and changing rooms are appropriate for all genders - I think that is really important.”
NatWest is an Official Partner of England Rugby. NatWest RugbyForce is a nationwide programme developed in partnership with England Rugby to help rugby clubs get set for tomorrow. @NatWest_Rugby @EnglandRugby