Maggie Alphonsi played in two Women's Rugby World Cup finals, in 2006 and 2010, and suffered heartbreak on both occasions against New Zealand.
We caught up with the World Rugby Hall of Fame inductee in the aftermath of an exhillarting WRWC 2017 final in Belfast, for which she provided analysis for ITV, to get her thoughts on the latest chapter in that incredible rivalry and the tournament as a whole.
Maggie, what are you thoughts on an incredible final that seemed to have something of everything?
“It was probably one of the best World Cup finals I have ever seen and been a part of. I am just heartbroken for England but at the same time what an amazing effort by New Zealand. For a team to come back in the second half and put in place a strategy that allowed them to close the game out was very impressive. But most importantly, two of the best teams in the world went toe-to-toe and the world got to see how good women’s rugby really is and I am proud for the game.
“The first half was crazy, we were all holding our breath. There was four tries, a yellow card, there was a penalty try in there somewhere and lots of penalties so there was so much happening. Then in the second half, in the first few minutes New Zealand scored their try and then you just thought ‘wow, they are making a comeback’. It was such an enthralling game and I have had lots of messages from lots of people saying that was brilliant rugby. And these are people who have probably never watched women’s rugby before have just said they saw a great game of rugby and didn’t see a gender and that is such a nice thing to hear and witness from people. I think what is exciting is thinking where this next tournament will go to in four years’ time and the standard it will get to because it is only going to get better. We have got the Sevens World Cup next year and the Commonwealth Games and I am just excited about rugby and some of these female athletes who are putting in some amazing performances and hopefully we will see new superstars coming to the forefront.”
An England-New Zealand final never disappoints but this one was something else?
“I have been very privileged to be in two encounters against New Zealand in a final and I thought they were tough, but watching this the lead changed hands so many times, one minute it was New Zealand leading, then England were leading, then New Zealand pulled it back again. We said at the start you really couldn’t call it. You had two very good sides who had a very good tournament and I think it was a real testament of what a final should be, you shouldn’t really know what it is going to be like until the 60th or 70th minute and that is what happened. England almost pulled it back with a try from Izzy Noel-Smith and the conversion. If there was another five or 10 minutes I totally think England could have made a comeback. I am heartbroken for the team as a former player but really proud for the game and actually well done to New Zealand, they are a team that don’t necessarily get the largest amount of funding but look what they can produce. They were determined and they had the mindset to want to come away with that World Cup win.”
How much do you think that pain of not even making the semi-finals in 2014 was behind that determination?
“They are still probably feeling the pain from 2014, being beaten by Ireland and then knocked out of the World Cup, that was a huge. And then losing to England in June in New Zealand in front of a New Zealand crowd. There are a couple of things which you felt had almost been fuelling their fire and it was almost they were using that to drive them on. I don’t know what was said at half-time from their coach Glenn Moore, but it was probably think about all those times you were suffering in those two games and you felt awful at the end of it and use that to drive you on and that is what they did. They just weren’t going to give up and you could see they played all the way to the 80th minute.”
And finally, how would you sum up the tournament as a whole?
“It has been brilliant, it has been so good. I always knew it was going to be a competitive tournament but I am just really pleased to see not how the teams like England, New Zealand and France have done but I have been really proud to see how the other tier nations have done. Like Hong Kong, this is their first World Cup, they scored some tries which has been brilliant. Japan have been a really competitive nation in this World Cup, but also Australia. They are a team that have had very little funding and have had five international fixtures before this World Cup and they stood up and showed how good they were.
“The only disappointment I think probably deep down inside was not seeing Ireland progress further, you always want the host nation to go far, but look World Cups always produce a variety of performances and a variety of results and that is what we got. I definitely think the two best teams made it to the final and who knows in the next four years, we might see different semi-finalists. Who knows what the future can hold for women’s rugby and with further investment I think we can totally get there and have more competitive nations across the world fighting it out for that final next time.”