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Grafter, leader, plumber: Marlie Packer’s journey to 100 England caps

Marlie Packer at the launch of the Women's Six Nations
Marlie Packer was the natural choice to replace Sarah Hunter as England captain - David Rogers/Getty Images

The year is 2000 and the scene is Oakmeadians Rugby Club. An 11-year-old Marlie Packer makes her way down to one of the back pitches with her Ivel Barbarians team-mates and coaches, easily discernible as the only girl in the under-12s team, in full view of the opposition. It is a moment Clinton Eales, Packer’s childhood coach, remembers well.

“As we walked past, a very large young lad who played prop for them said, ‘Haha, look… They’ve got a girl playing for them!’ Marlie stopped dead in her tracks. She looked at this young lad… Well, if looks could kill. She pointed at him and said, ‘I remember who you are’.”

Soon after kick-off, Packer, having tracked the boy from the first breakdown, launched herself at him and in one fell swoop, hauled him to the ground. The moment remains burned into Eales’ memory. “Absolute perfection,” he says. “The young lad hit the floor and he was sobbing his eyes out. His mum even came onto the pitch and demanded Marlie be taken off! That was the turning point for Marlie. She knew she could do some serious damage on a rugby pitch.”

Eight years after that episode, Packer was called up to the England squad for the Nations Cup against Canada, having flown skywards through the player pathway. The Yeovil native was a raw diamond back then, but from the start her talent was obvious.

On Sunday, she will become the seventh English female centurion when she captains the Red Roses on her 100th Test appearance in England’s Six Nations opener against Italy in Parma.

It is a milestone that is even more impressive when you consider how Packer has spent more of her life as a plumber than a professional rugby player. Like many of her peers from England’s 2014 World Cup-winning squad, she took a period of leave to compete in the tournament and returned to working full-time as a plumber for HomeServe, returning to fix faulty boilers and leaky pipes days after lifting the trophy.

Her vocational identity is one she is fiercely proud of. On her X profile Packer lists that she is a “plumber by trade” before the fact that she is Red Rose No 150. In the days before professionalism, she would rock up to England training in her big red van, crammed with pipe wrenches, nuts, bolts and screws, after a hard day’s work. The industrious mentality she gleaned from her profession has shaped the way in which she applies herself in a rugby environment.

Emily Scarratt and Marlie Packer of England interact during the England Red Roses training session
Packer (right) alongside Emily Scarratt at England training - Steve Bardens/Getty Images

“Throughout my career, I was always quite gym-orientated,” says Maggie Alphonsi, the former England flanker-turned-pundit. “Marlie hasn’t necessarily always been the best trainer, but that’s what has made her quite unique. She just works hard. She’s a grafter. Marlie does all her hard work on the field and that’s what makes it very different to probably some of the other back rows that you might see.”

There are many examples when Alphonsi’s words ring true, even in Packer’s lesser-known days as an England Sevens player. She won a crucial breakdown penalty at the 2015 Amsterdam Sevens tournament in a winner-takes-all tie against the USA which led to the try that sealed Great Britain’s qualification for the Rio Olympics. Despite her heroic contribution, she ended up missing out on selection for the Games, but her disappointment simply drove her on to become one of the world’s best openside flankers in the longer code of the game.

Even in the twilight of her career, Packer’s numbers chime with someone who is at the peak of their powers. In last year’s Six Nations, when she took over the Red Roses captaincy following Sarah Hunter’s retirement, she topped the charts for number of carries (71) defensive rucks hit (52) and jackal turnovers (7). This season, she is the leading try-scorer in Premiership Women’s Rugby.

For Simon Middleton, the former England coach, it was a “no-brainer” to appoint her as captain when Sarah Hunter retired at the start of last year’s championship. Underneath her lighthearted nature, there is an intrinsic competitor who bears the same killer instinct as the young girl who stepped onto that Oakmeadians pitch, but one who has also mellowed into a born leader.

“The thing that really convinced me that Marlie was the right person for the job was because of the way she’s matured as a person over the years,” says Middleton. “She became a really not just a smart player but a smart manager of players. Her discipline was as good as anybody’s, in terms of how she moved from being a player who played on the wrong side of the line at times to playing on the right side of it.”

More recently, Packer has been under pressure from youngsters such as Sadia Kabeya in England’s increasingly crammed back row. “The back row is ferocious in terms of competition, but Marlie recognised the challenge in front of her,” says Middleton. “She never takes anything for granted – especially when playing for England. She just upped her game.”

Current head coach John Mitchell sees that same attitude, saying: “Talking to Marlie about her journey, she has had to overcome adversity since her Test debut in 2008. What has been evident since I first met her is her determination to succeed has been ingrained in her over the past 16 years.”

At last week’s Women’s Six Nations launch, Packer was asked about the pressure of keeping her place when younger Red Roses – some of whom have only ever known professionalism – are chomping at her heels. “I just need to keep doing me,” she said, seemingly nonplussed at the question. “I don’t need to be anyone else. I’ve never been anyone else in my career.”

The young girl who got her own back on that Oakmeadians pitch would no doubt agree.

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