Marlie Packer’s career has been a fairy tale but like all the best love stories, the multi-talented mum’s one is full of twists and turns, of passion and persistence.
Packer has made the openside position for the Red Roses her own since her debut in 2013, not least during the side’s current 23-game unbeaten run, and heads into the World Cup in New Zealand on the back of one of her finest seasons to date.
At club level, she picked up the Allianz Premier 15s title with Saracens, scoring twice in their final victory over Exeter Chiefs, and she was just as influential at international level, starting all but one fixture as England claimed the TikTok Women’s Six Nations title and a Grand Slam which culminated in a nomination for Player of the Championship.
Attention now turns to her third World Cup, where the 32-year-old is sure to play with her usual gusto and desire, attributes she has demonstrated since her first every rugby session – not that her mother, Julie, was aware.
“It was a friend’s parents from school,” said Packer, recalling who took her to training for the first time.
“They took me to go play one Sunday afternoon. My mum thought I was going to watch in this pair of jeans and red frilly top. I loved it and came back caked in mud and have never not returned.”
Packer would soon join the club that gave her a first taste of rugby, Ivel Barbarians, now Yeovil RFC, though a professional career in rugby was not something that the former plumber and heating engineer initially considered.
“I just enjoyed playing rugby,” she explained. “It was not a case of, ‘I want to play for England, I want to make a career out of this,’ because back then, that wasn’t a thing. It was very different to what it is now. We still say now, ‘you’ve got to see it to believe it, to want to do it.’”
It was not until Packer was selected for an England junior performance camp that she started to truly believe she could make the grade and it was around that time that she became one of the first-ever players to receive a semi-professional contract through her endeavours in the sevens format, where she represented her country at the 2013 World Cup.
“It wasn’t very much money at all, but it wasn’t about the money,” she said. “It was about the experience of playing for your country and doing it with people, my friends, that I love. I’ve just managed to kick on from that.”
Just 12 months later, and shortly after the shock death of her absent father, Packer found herself starting in the final of the 15s showpiece event, as the Red Roses edged Canada in France to win rugby’s ultimate prize for the second time.
Upon her return home, Packer was awarded an honorary membership at Yeovil and at a surprise dinner to recognise her achievements, an enormous print of her with the World Cup trophy was unveiled alongside one picturing Martin Johnson with the Webb Ellis Cup.
“It’s a fairy tale. It’s a fairy tale that I live in,” said Packer, reflecting on her career. “I owe so much to Yeovil Rugby Club.
“When I go up there most people offer me a pint, but, depending on what time of season it is, depends on whether I can accept it or not, but it’s just really nice.
“Yeovil Rugby Club and Yeovil itself is home and it always will be. I don’t get to go back and give back to the club as much as I would like, but one day I would love to do that.”
That Packer is short of time away from rugby is understandable. At the end of a turbulent 2020, in which she required surgery on a troublesome ankle, Packer became a mother to son, Oliver.
Balancing elite sport and motherhood is anything but straightforward and there are few examples for Packer to follow. A few months after Oliver’s birth, Packer’s teammate and captain of the 2014 World Cup success, Katy Daley-McLean, announced her surprise retirement from international rugby to spend more time with her daughter and partner.
Packer, though, is more determined than ever to achieve international success for Oliver, who the 83-cap forward suggests is the reason for her best rugby to date.
“I think the switch on and off is a lot easier to do once you’ve had a child,” she explained.
“Oliver, he fills me, he warms my heart, he’s amazing. And I think that for me, that switch from being a parent as well as a rugby player, makes it so much more enjoyable.
“It’s made me see there is so much more to life than rugby and I’m not saying that’s what I’m thinking about now, but Oliver has just given me a whole new lease of life.”
Turning her attention to the World Cup, Packer, though invigorated, appreciates that there is no greater challenge than going away to the home of the reigning champions, with the pressure of arriving as the No.1 ranked team.
But for Packer, history will not play a part in any potential meeting with the Black Ferns, who beat England 41-32 in the final five years ago.
“I think the squad has massively changed from 2017, we’ve evolved, we have players that are literally amazing,” she declared. “We’ve come a long way since then, on and off the pitch, as an England group.
“We beat New Zealand in New Zealand before the 2017 World Cup. We’ve had them over here for autumn internationals and we’ve got the job done. But we need to make sure that we don’t rely on any of that, that we go out there and know what we need to do.”