As a brilliant openside who acted as a vital link between forwards and backs in her 74-cap career, Maggie Alphonsi appreciated better than most the old adage that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
Alphonsi featured in an England team that won seven straight Women’s Six Nations titles – six of them Grand Slams – and her tackles and ball-winning ability at the breakdown played a major role in that era of success.
But she is the first to acknowledge that without Rocky Clark and Sarah Hunter pushing upfront, Emily Scarratt carving open holes in midfield and Nolli Waterman supplying the finishing touches out wide, none of that would have been possible.
And now, having swapped a scrum cap for an earpiece, the 37-year-old south Londoner is relishing being in the thick of another environment where teamwork is essential – the world of live TV.
“That appreciation of a team is one thing I have translated from being a player into broadcasting. While one person can’t win a game on their own, equally one person can’t make a good show,” said the former Saracens star.
“The reality is the people behind the camera are doing the hard work, if I am being honest, and the people in front of the camera are just translating that to the people who are watching.
“For the show to be good, we all have to be on our ‘A-game’.”
Different game plan
For Alphonsi, the analogies between playing and talking about professional rugby are becoming more and more apparent.
Like the match itself, live TV production can seem like structured chaos as no one can fully predict and plan for what is going to unfold.
“People might think we just rock up on the day, and all of a sudden, we start talking about stuff,” said Alphonsi, who was inducted into World Rugby’s Hall of Fame in 2016.
“Whoever I’ve worked for [and there aren’t many TV companies left that she hasn’t], you get a script before the start of the show saying this is how it is going to be played out.
“It is like rugby in a sense in that you get given a game plan, and you have the fly-half, who is generally the presenter, guiding us and giving us direction.
“But, of course, there are times when that game plan (the script) does have to change if the live event goes in a different direction and you need to go off on a tangent and discuss something like three red cards, for example.”
Being able to adapt to changing circumstances is the hallmark of any good broadcaster, and indeed any player.
And Alphonsi is also finding that the adrenaline rush from being in front of the camera and having your words broadcast to millions of people is as close as you can get to actually playing.
“I had pure excitement at first, thinking ‘Oh my god, this is amazing’. But then the nerves start to develop once you realise how significant your role is. Now, nerves are normal, if anything it’s turned to pressure – but not in a bad way. Now I’ve been in broadcasting for a bit longer, people have expectations on you to do well, and if anything, I thrive off that and the fact I am more visible.”
Having played in Rugby World Cup finals, Alphonsi knows what it is like to be involved in big occasions and, in 2019, she experienced the same feeling as a broadcaster.
“The one that still gets me to this day is the Rugby World Cup 2019 semi-final between England and New Zealand. I was pitchside and I thought to myself, ‘this is the most amazing experience, I have got to produce, I have got to perform’.
“I remember the (broadcast) meeting beforehand, and the nerves in the room. It felt like we were in our own Rugby World Cup semi-final.”
It’s been a busy day of rugby. I thoroughly enjoyed being back with @btsport for #EXEvLYN. Congrats to Exeter! Looking forward to that QF against Leinster. Going to be a tough one to call 🤔 pic.twitter.com/c5HfYcZR5j— Maggie Alphonsi MBE (@MaggieAlphonsi) April 3, 2021
As with any recently retired player, the skills required for broadcasting did not always come naturally at first. But Alphonsi applied the hard work and dedication she showed as a player to her new craft and is now up there with the likes of Alex Scott (football) and Ebony Rainford-Brent (cricket) as the female face of rugby.
To help her deliver her expert insight as crisply as a Kendra Cocksedge pass, Alphonsi took elocution lessons, and knowing that you are only as good as your last show – like a player is only as good as their last game – she continues to use the services of a broadcast coach/mentor.
“You’ve got to keep refining your skills and make yourself better. You never stop and rest on your laurels, you just can’t,” she said.
“After I’ve worked on a job, I review it, get feedback from people who are relevant to helping me in my career, and I also go away and do work preparing for the weekend.
“I read articles, watch over clips of games, and basically throw myself into it. At the same time, it is important to get the right balance between filling your mind with information and making sure you have your own authentic views.
“When I first started, I went a bit over the top, and it got to the point where I didn’t know what my own opinions were. Now I get the information – things like past results – and then think, ‘what’s my take on it?’
“I love working with Gareth Thomas, for example. He is so genuine. What you see is what you get with him; he is so open with what he says, and that’s important – to have a bit of you.”
The technical side of the job is also something that Alphonsi says it took time to get used to.
“When you first start, you’re not quite sure how things work but over time you learn. Now, when I walk into a broadcast environment, I know the structure and who the key stakeholders are and I am very aware of the cameras. I know if I’m on a one-shot or a two-shot, and as a result of that, I feel like a broadcaster whereas before I was a player coming into punditry.
“My delivery has changed because of what I now know about broadcasting.”
Disarming the critics
With her knowledge of the game and a disarming smile that puts viewers at ease, Alphonsi has many more fans than critics as a rugby pundit.
But being in such a public position, there is always someone to shoot you down no matter how well you do.
Sadly, gender is an issue for some people, and like Scott and Rainford-Brent, Alphonsi has had her fair share of online trolls questioning her ability, especially when it comes to commenting on the men’s game.
“When I got my first men’s gig, I think it was an under-20s fixture, I was like, ‘I don’t know if I am suitable for this because I don’t know the players well’. But once the game had happened and I’d done the first one, I thought ‘this is just rugby’. Okay, the player names are different and elements of the game might be different, but you’ve still got scrums and lineouts. Rugby is not a gender, it is not a man or a woman, it is just a sport.
“People will say, ‘you haven’t played men’s rugby’. But you’ve got really good commentators who’ve never played international rugby, and that doesn’t mean they are poor commentators, and some of the best referees in the world have never played elite rugby but are brilliant at what they do. Take Wayne Barnes, for example.
“With my own experiences as a player and coach – I have worked with top coaches and players, men and women – I feel I have got the experience needed.
“It is sad to see there has been a rise in social media trolls, we’ve not just seen it in rugby but in cricket and in football as well. But the good thing is none of us are stopping what we do. Actually, the only way to silence trolls is by continuing to keep doing what you are doing and inspiring more women and girls to do the same.”