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Marlie Packer: ‘I’m still striving to be the best in the world’

“There seem to be more people asking me that these days,” Marlie Packer chuckles as we alight on the topic of what life beyond the sport she has devoted her life to might hold. “What is it – you hit 100 caps and get asked what life after rugby is going to be like?”

It feels a natural question for a player who has, for 16 years now internationally, forged her rugby trade on sticking her head in the places that others won’t. Tough, savvy, confrontational and explosive, Packer is the archetypal openside flanker – and even at 34, she’s still pushing her game on.

Elevated to the England captaincy a year ago, the last 12 months have brought three trophies, a World Player of the Year gong and not a single defeat. Packer has led from the front throughout, helping head coach John Mitchell forge a new culture and playing style that has brought rich dividends. And with a home World Cup on the horizon that she very much hopes to lead England into, the Saracens flanker wants to make one thing clear.

Marlie Packer is still as influential as ever for England
Marlie Packer is still as influential as ever for England (Getty Images)

“This ain’t a retirement speech,” Packer stresses in her trademark straight-talking style, reflecting on her career after winning the Special Merit Award from the Rugby Players’ Association. “But to be able to put on my shirt for my country 100 times is very special. I feel so much pride. I’m honoured to have been able to do what I’ve done for so long.

“The road to the top of the mountain isn’t straight; you’ve got to have a few dips, whether it is injury, selection or other things going on in your life. I’ve had all three of them in my career. It has been tough at times, but what it all boils down to is my love of the game, and what it has given me. You can forget about all of the white noise and outside noise, and just remember why you are doing it.

“We’ve got a World Cup in 2025 on the horizon and my full focus is on that. After that, I might have a little break and evaluate where I’m going. Who knows? We’ve got the British & Irish Lions tour after that…”

England romped to another Women’s Six Nations crown in April
England romped to another Women’s Six Nations crown in April (Getty Images)

It has been quite the journey since Packer’s England debut on a back-pitch in Amsterdam in 2008. The woman and the sport have changed plenty since, riding ups and downs on and off the pitch. Gone are the days of fitting being an international athlete around her day-job as a plumber. The Red Roses are better and better resourced each year, driving women’s rugby forward, and Mitchell’s arrival has allowed the England squad to embrace a more open environment to keep on developing.

“We want everyone to succeed in our environment,” Packer explains. “We’ve got the resources to do that, and that is a culture that has come naturally with Mitch coming in. He’s come from the men’s game so he sees the difference in some ways – what we used to think of as being lucky to have, he expects or asks for.

“There is an expectation now being contracted full-time to the Red Roses that we keep driving that and keep pushing those expectations. From nutrition in camp, to the places we stay and the kit we wear, it is for us to keep pushing boundaries as a group that there have to be expectations there, but realistic ones as well.

Marlie Packer has enjoyed working with head coach John Mitchell
Marlie Packer has enjoyed working with head coach John Mitchell (Getty Images)

“I think back to my first cap 15 years ago, and to where we are now is a million miles apart. That’s not done overnight, that’s taken time and the calibre of people we’ve had in, players and staff members. It has always been an open and happy place with the players previously, but I think John Mitchell coming in has opened that up to the staff. You can sit and have dinner with a staff member and not talk about rugby, actually get to know each other as people. If we all know our personal whys and what makes us tick, that’s only going to enhance us on the pitch.”

England continue their preparations for next summer’s World Cup with WXV in the autumn, with two warm-up fixtures against France and the Black Ferns key in providing a tough challenge to test a squad so used to sizeable scorelines.

Packer has been part of two final near misses to New Zealand since being part of the side that lifted the trophy in 2014, and knows that her team cannot let up in pursuit of a triumph that will confirm their place at the top of the rugby world. But son Oliver, who has just begun to appreciate his mother’s prominence as a player, has given her perspective and allowed her to enjoy the sport even more.

“I hope I’ve inspired future generations to pick up a ball and my own son to know that he can achieve anything he wants if he puts his mind to it. I grew up in a council house with my mum providing for me and my brother. Rugby has brought a lot of joy to my family, a lot of joy to my life and I feel very honoured to be able to call myself a centurion.

Marlie Packer believes motherhood has enhanced her performances on the pitch
Marlie Packer believes motherhood has enhanced her performances on the pitch (Getty Images)

“The last couple of years, I’ve really been enjoying my rugby and focussing on that. Oliver has definitely changed my perspective on some of that stuff as well. It’s only enhanced my game.

“The day I retire and look back at everything, I think I’ll be pinching myself, but I’m still striving to be the best in the world and the best version of myself on and off the pitch: whether that is mummy Marlie Packer, or Saracens and England captain Marlie Packer. I’m always striving to do all of those roles because they are so important to me. I want to keep enjoying doing that and pushing myself.”

Marlie Packer is speaking following her winning Special Merit Award at the RPA Awards 2024.

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