Before Marlie Packer starts any rugby game, her phone lights up with a text ending with the hashtag: ‘#onlyagirl.’ Courtesy of a family friend, the mantra has become immortalized into a pre-match reading ritual for the England back-rower, who started out as a five-year-old at Ivel Barbarians, now known as Yeovil Rugby Club.
“At secondary school, they let me play in the year seven’s boys team,” said Packer. “I wasn’t fazed by it - the boys weren’t either - because they’d always known I’d played rugby. But when we went to play our local schools, dads would shout, ‘She’s only a girl, tackle her!’”
Like many of her Red Rose peers, the Saracens player hails from a generation where mixed junior-grade rugby was the norm for women and girls wanting to give the oval-shaped game a try. It is a far cry from the 37,000 who are registered at clubs across England today, more than double the number five years ago.
Despite enjoying a prolific career for England’s under-20s - where Packer captained the side - her crossover to senior level required greater patience. More than three years separated her first and second international cap, starting in place of England legend Maggie Alphonsi during a 2010 tour to Canada for the latter.
“I think they must have seen something in me early doors and maybe I needed to grow up and mature a little bit,” revealed Packer, who will make her 70th England appearance against France at Exeter’s Sandy Park on Saturday. “When you get to every 10 caps, that’s when you realise you’re accomplishing more and more. I still love it, the feeling you get when you run out onto the pitch. When we do shirt presentations and you hear the amount of caps called out for you, it’s still a massive honour.”
In March, Packer’s nan, Barbara, watched her granddaughter play in her England strip for the first time when 10,545 people set a new attendance record for an England women’s game at Sandy Park. Had it not been for her ill-health, she would have snapped up a ticket for Saturday’s encounter, (She’ll be watching it on TV,” conceded Packer. “She’s got Twitter, but she only follows England Rugby, Saracens, myself and a couple of other players she knows!”)
But only months before, Packer had feared for her international career. Last year, she was involved in a non-fatal car accident driving home from a Saracens pre-season friendly on a sunny August afternoon. She had been two times the limit and was handed a drink-driving conviction. Twelve months on and in testament to her maturity, Packer makes no attempt to plaster over the wound which cut her deeply. She admits it was tough having no control over “what the media wrote about me... what people thought or said”. But she has emerged from that darkness as a stronger and more resilient person, determined to be an educator for others.
“It’s made my life difficult getting to training,” she said. “I hate being late. Relying on public transport is not always the most on-time thing. It’s something I’ve had to learn to deal with. I faced the consequences of my own actions, but my teammates have backed me. I’m here now and I’m here to do a job. This is my job and I love doing it.”
It is a job which only two years ago the industrious Packer juggled alongside her career as a plumber, having completed her apprenticeship between first and second international appearances. She took seven weeks of unpaid work before the 2017 World Cup to focus on England’s campaign, at a time when professionalism in XVs was still something of a pipe dream.
“It’s quite funny, my mum’s partner drilled through a water pipe the other day and I was in the garage, on the watt bike, they were shouting up to us and the last thing I heard was, ‘He’s drilled through a pipe!’” said Packer. “I jumped off the watt bike, ran down the garden and had to fix it. That was the last time I got my tools out, but I’m quite focused on rugby. I don’t know how much shelf life I’ve got left."
But as the third most-capped forward in Simon Middleton’s squad behind club teammate Vicky Fleetwood (68) and captain Sarah Hunter (116), Packer is already a key part of Middleton’s plans for the 2021 World Cup. “That’s my target,” she said. “That’s where I want to be at. I want to be there to get the gold medal and then I’ll reevaluate after that.
“I’ll always want to keep in with rugby. When I retire I’ll probably do some coaching and do that side that I never did at college and decided to be a plumber. I’ve got a lot to give rugby now.”