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England’s Marlie Packer: ‘I’d give my son the world – dad did none of that for me’
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England’s Marlie Packer: ‘I’d give my son the world – dad did none of that for me’

‘We’re in France and the crowd is going to be hostile,” Marlie Packer says as she looks ahead to Saturday’s Six Nations grand slam decider in Bordeaux with relish. “But we know that can flip on its head because of the French crowd. If they’re not happy with the way their team are playing, they turn on them and give them a bit of a hard time.”

Packer will win her 104th cap and, as captain, she also knows England have not lost a Six Nations match in six years. She played in that last defeat, away to France in Grenoble in March 2018, and so she has an acute awareness of the light and shade in rugby and life. Packer has lost two agonising World Cup finals, to New Zealand, but she helped England win the tournament in 2014.

Ten years ago, unknown to most people, Packer was grieving the death of her father – as well as mourning the reality that her dad, who had been in and out of prison, was little more than a shadowy and disruptive presence in her life. The 34-year-old flanker will soon open up about the subsequent depression she overcame and reflect on how becoming a mother helped her find peace with her past.

Packer will also talk engagingly about her work as a plumber, a role she embraced as an international player before professionalism transformed the women’s game, and of the unlikely partnership she and the new head coach, John Mitchell, have forged as their team now play with a verve and freedom often missing from English rugby.

Last Saturday, in front of 48,000 exuberant fans, Packer led England to an 88-10 demolition of Ireland as they scored 14 tries to win their fourth straight match in this year’s Six Nations. “We’re going from an amazing experience at Twickenham to being away in Bordeaux,” Packer says. “But there will be a similar amount of French fans. The pressure, the hostility and the team we’re facing will make it more intense. We need to make sure we put in a performance like last weekend, playing with smiles on our faces, because if we do that we’ll silence that crowd.”

Packer grimaces when I ask her how it felt to lose 18-17, and to a last-minute try, against France six years ago. “It was a tough loss. We were gutted and disappointed – but determined to come back stronger. You’ve got to move forward and learn from your losses.”

England’s squad has changed hugely since that loss, but France, who have also won all four matches this year, remain their closest European rivals. The most marked contrast has been in the stylish and emphatic nature of England’s victories. France’s points difference is plus 94; England have scored 208 more points than the teams they have crushed.

Marlie Packer runs at the Ireland defence at Twickenham.View image in fullscreen

Even Packer seems surprised, if thrilled. “Not at all,” she says when asked if she had expected Mitchell, renowned for his work with forwards and in defence in men’s rugby, to introduce such an expansive way of playing. “But I didn’t know what to expect of John Mitchell at all. On my first call with him, I was really taken aback by his accent.”

Packer laughs. “It’s a very New Zealand accent. But you learn a lot about John very quickly. If there’s silence, he won’t fill it with meaningless chat. Seven weeks ago, we got a video of his granddaughter on a go-kart skidding around the garden and it showed what he wants from us. Let that handbrake off and go for it. That’s his big motto.

“For many years we’ve been very set-piece dominant. We still dominate that area but we’ve been given licence to play rugby. Our backs have come alive. The back three have been phenomenal but so has our front five. The way the whole team is playing is exceptional and that’s led to all the tries.”

Packer won her 100th cap in the opening game in Italy and she was relaxed when Mitchell consigned her to the bench for the third match, against Scotland. She came on to score the eighth and last try in a 46-0 victory and Packer dismisses speculation that Mitchell might have dropped her in a warning to the squad that no one should feel complacent. “We’ve been quite open and, prior to the Six Nations, we had a conversation that I might not be involved in one of the games because of our depth and making sure that, if something happens to me, someone else can step in.

Marlie Packer with son, Oliver, after completing the grand slam against France in 2023.View image in fullscreen

“I said to Mitch: ‘Look, I want to start the Six Nations, and I want to finish it. That doesn’t mean I get to choose selection, but I’m happy to crack on.’ He was like: ‘Yeah, that’s the way I see it as well, Marlie.’ I’m at the age where he wants me to still be firing at the 2025 World Cup.

“The first two games, he took me off around that 60-minute mark and said: ‘I’ve got enough out of you.’ With John, it’s all about the person. We’re rugby players but he takes care of us as people. But I know there are no guarantees. I have to keep performing.”

In Packer’s friendly company it’s easy to gain a sense of her as a person. She is still driven but she does not shy away from her past vulnerabilities. This is at its clearest, and most moving, when she talks about the past trauma around her father and how his death a few months before the 2014 World Cup unhinged her.

“I was a young whippersnapper, loving the fact that me and Alex Matthews had just turned 21 and we were young and free and playing in a World Cup with our best mates. But I wasn’t dealing with everything else that had just gone on and, after the tournament, I wasn’t in a good place. I’d got injured, had a relationship breakdown and, after my dad, I suddenly was in a really bad place. That probably played some part in my relationship breakdown because I’d become this snappy, irritable, unhappy person.”

It took a long time for Packer to understand that her grief was wrapped around the fact that she had always missed the presence of a loving father. Eventually, when she and her former partner became parents to their son, Oliver, in September 2020, she came to terms with everything she had lost as a girl.

“I had mixed emotions when I first had Oliver because, until you have a kid, you don’t realise what unconditional love means. You would do anything for your kid. I know I would for Oliver so when he was born there were so many questions for me about my dad. ‘How could my dad not have wanted to be there for me? Why would he not take me to rugby?’

“With Oliver, whatever the state of my relationship with his other mum, there is nothing I’d not do for him. I’d give him the world and my dad did none of that for me.”

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Her father was often in prison and her mum, Julie, tried to protect her. “She definitely did when I was a girl. At the time I questioned why sometimes she wouldn’t let me go see my dad but, now I’m a parent I fully understand. I would never let anyone, even a family member, put Oliver at risk.

“As I got into my later teens, around 16, I started making my own decisions and spending more time with my dad. But I was easily influenced and he did not bring out the best sides of me. So my mum did an amazing job protecting me and making sure I was safe.”

Her mum “is my rock”, she says. “We’ve had such fun these last few years as she’s now Nana to all of us. It’s all about Oliver these days.”

Packer laughs when I switch the subject from parenting to plumbing. Three years and three months passed between her first and second caps because Packer, as an amateur who made her Test debut in 2008, wanted to learn a trade. She spent that time earning all the certificates she needed during her apprenticeship.

Do her younger teammates ask her about the days when she combined plumbing and rugby? “They joke about it and ask: ‘How did you do that?’ It’s because you wanted to and there was a real drive to play for your country. Young players now come straight from school or college and can pick up full-time contracts. But I tell them it’s about always upskilling and making sure they’re prepared for life after rugby. I might not be a plumber when I retire. I would love to do property development and add another string to my bow.”

Can she still sort out the plumbing? “Definitely,” she says with a grin. “If I get a FaceTime call from one of the girls I know it’s a plumbing question and they’re wanting me to show them how to fix something.”

Packer is even more enthusiastic about the way women’s rugby is flourishing. She pays tribute to Guinness, which sponsors the Six Nations and pumps significant amounts of money into women’s rugby in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. “It makes such a difference to all of us and the women’s game is on a massive rise. Scotland and Wales are also on full-time contracts now. Wales have had a dip but the full-time contracts take time to bed in.”

England captain Marlie Packer with head coach John Mitchell.View image in fullscreen

While there is an unhealthy gap between England and the rest of the home nations, Packer argues that the other teams, including Ireland, who are bottom of the Six Nations table, have reason to hope for an upturn. “After being in a real low, Ireland now have Scott Bemand as head coach. Scott used to be our attack coach and you’ve seen real growth in them the last six months. Everything is going in the right direction. They beat Wales and they played some good rugby against us – but we took it to another level.”

Packer believes that England’s Red Roses can match the success of their Lioness counterparts in women’s football. “Most definitely. You can see the sheer success of all the work people put in – from the grassroots to the Guinness sponsorship and marketing to the phenomenal job we’ve done taking the Red Roses on the road. We’ve gone to St James’ Park, Doncaster, Northampton, Exeter, Bristol and, last year against France, we had 58,000 at Twickenham.

“We’ve got two massive autumn internationals against France and New Zealand. I bet we’ll sell out Twickenham against New Zealand. I genuinely think the fanbase is there for the kind of rugby we’re playing.”

But, first, a defining battle awaits in Bordeaux. Packer leans forward and smiles again when asked if these are the kind of matches she enjoys most. “Yeah, 100%, because these are the games that really test you, physically and mentally. We’re in an amazing place after all we’ve done on and off the pitch. But we will really get tested.”

Source: theguardian.com