Red Roses captain Marlie Packer on her son, rugby and plumbing

Red Roses captain Marlie Packer says motherhood has transformed her life on and off the pitch (Picture: Matthew Gordon/Getty Images)

In 2014, Marlie Packer was forced to juggle her day job with her dream.

The plumber played rugby for England alongside a lifeguard, several teachers and a vet. Many had relied on the goodwill of their bosses in order to travel to the 2014 World Cup in Paris, where the Red Roses emerged victorious.

A decade later, life couldn’t be more different for Marlie. She was awarded a full-time contract in 2019 and has gone on to become Red Roses captain. A record-58,000 fans flocked to Twickenham in last year’s Women’s Six Nations.

Marlie smiles as she remembers the match, nicknamed ‘Le Crunch’ between England and France.

The final game of the 2023 Women’s Six Nations ended with a 38-33 victory to the hosts, with a half-time performance from the iconic Sugababes and a record-breaking crowd to top it all off.

It was a moment of celebration that spurred Marlie to reflect on her journey through sport. Her early rugby career had been marred by feelings of self-doubt, periods of depression, a drink-driving case and, in 2014, the death of her father.

It’s only in the last few years that she’s found a renewed sense of purpose, she says, and it’s all down to her three-year-old son.

 Marlie Packer of England lifts up her son Oliver as the teams walk out ahead of the TikTok Women's Six Nations match between England and France at Twickenham Stadium on April 29, 2023 in London, England.

Marlie’s proudest moment remains walking out with her son as mascot during England’s record-breaking game against France in April, 2023 (Picture: Catherine Ivill – RFU/The RFU Collection via Getty Images)

Marlie Packer of England sings the national anthem with their child and teammates prior to the TikTok Women's Six Nations match between England and France at Twickenham Stadium on April 29, 2023 in London, England.

Oliver has changed the outlook the Red Roses captain has on her life on and off the pitch (Picture: Warren Little/Getty Images)

‘I never knew what unconditional love was until Oliver,’ she tells Metro. ‘I used to struggle to switch off from rugby and put a lot of pressure on myself. I’d get home and think “right, what should I eat? Did I train hard enough? Did I hydrate enough? What can I do better tomorrow?”

‘But when I had Oliver, that all changed. I volunteered at Food Bank Aid in Finchley last week, which supports 20,000 people every week. At least 5,000 of that number are kids. It breaks my heart. I see my life through Oliver’s eyes now and want him to grow up seeing how we can make a difference.’

Marlie, 34, has already made a huge difference for women in rugby. In 2019, she became one of the first England players to receive a full-time contract.

Born in Somerset, she began her international career in 2008 – at a time when professional contracts simply didn’t exist for female rugby players. Instead, she had to work as a plumber to pay the bills. It meant the Grand Slam winner would leave at home at 6.45am for training in Guildford, arrive home for a nap and food around midday, then jump in her van and head to work until 9pm.

‘From my first cap to my second cap there was a gap of three years and three months. In that time I qualified as a level 3 plumber and got my gas certificate,’ she recalls. ‘That’s something I’m truly proud of doing. I’m dyslexic and found academic things really hard in school, so for me to reach that stage felt really special.’

England and Saracens captain Marlie was working as a plumber when the Red Roses won the World Cup in 2014. While it was a time of joy for her teammates, she was going through a terrible loss.

Marlie Packer smiles on a chair

Marlie began her career at Ivel Barbarians RFC, now Yeovil Rugby Club (Picture: Matthew Gordon/Stylist: Rhiannon Lagden/Grooming&Make-up: Gracie Jai Cox and Saffron Jacobs)

‘My dad died 12 weeks before the start of the tournament,’ she says. 

‘I was 24 and training for a World Cup while sorting out how to pay for my dad’s funeral. It was pretty tough. I played through an elbow injury in the semi-final and in the final and came back in a really strange space. 

‘Everyone was really happy for me and the win had been amazing, but I wasn’t happy on the inside. I was depressed, but I didn’t realise that. I went to a doctor and finally got the chance to talk things over.

‘Before then, I would hide emotions and let them build up. That’s why I’m so open about my mental health now, I want people to know whatever emotion you’re feeling, it’s okay, you can talk about it.’

While Marlie grieved her father, she also felt twinges of anger. He had been largely absent and in and out of prison when she was a child, didn’t pay child maintenance and left Marlie’s ‘amazing’ mum, Julie, to put food on the table and support Marlie with her rugby dream.

She continues: ‘When Oliver was born, I realised the bigger impact of having a parent who didn’t want to spend time with you. I genuinely don’t understand how you could do that to your child. There’s nothing I would not do for Oliver, I’ll always be there for him. So that’s the bit I don’t get, but I can never ask my dad those questions since he’s no longer here. 

Marlie Packer smiles with her mum Julie

Marlie credits her mum Julie as one of her biggest inspirations (Pictures: Marlie Packer)

Marlie Packer, Captain of England Women's Rugby team is seen in the Royal Box during the Men's Singles first round match between Novak Djokovic of Serbia and Pedro Cachin of Argentina on day one of The Championships Wimbledon 2023 at All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on July 03, 2023 in London, England.

The pair in the Royal Box as Novak Djokovic took on Pedro Cachin on day one of Wimbledon 2023(Picture: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

‘The ten year anniversary of his death is coming up in April and there’s a mix of emotions. I think there is a bit of anger still there, but I’m mostly just gutted he never got to see all this.’

Marlie is open about her dad and the impact his loss has had on her. She’s spoken candidly in her life about her mental health, experience of loss and other major challenges: such as a drink drive conviction when she was a younger player. She once featured her rugby career would be ‘all over’ as a result of the incident.

‘I have made mistakes in my life and I won’t shy away from them,’ she admits. ‘But what I’ve learned is how I can educate people around me to learn from that – and educate myself.’ 

Oliver’s other mum, Natasha, carried their son in pregnancy – which took place during the Covid pandemic. It meant, due to a lack of sport, she was able to spend more time with the youngster.

Today, Marlie has Oliver to lead by example, but she also has her rugby family who look up to her. She is captain of the Red Roses following the retirement of Sarah Hunter in 2023 and is determined to grow the women’s game as much as possible.

Marlie continues: ‘I remember how different things used to be. In 2011, when we beat Ireland at Ashbourne to win the Six Nations, we had maybe a couple hundred people watching us. There was a function in the club house after but no social media posts or anything like that. 

Marlie Packer and her son Oliver

Marlie’s son Oliver joined the Red Roses captain in a new photoshoot ahead of the Six Nations (Picture: Matthew Gordon/Stylist: Rhiannon Lagden/Grooming&Make-up: Gracie Jai Cox/Saffron Jacobs)

Marlie Packer of England scores a try during the Womens Six Nations match between England and Italy at Sandy Park on March 09, 2019 in Exeter, England.

The former plumber juggled blocked pipes for brave tries before she was a fully-contracted player (Photo by Dan Mullan – RFU/The RFU Collection via Getty Imagesges)

‘Since then we’ve seen companies like O2 and Guinness seriously invest in the game to grow it. Visibility is massive, if you can see it – you can be it. We had the best viewing figures ever for the last Six Nations and the game just keeps growing, I’m super happy to be a part of that.’

Marlie is speaking to Metro at a photography studio in East London, with Oliver in tow. She’s just featured in a new series of images from the Red Roses, released ahead of the Guinness Women’s Six Nations, kicking off on March 23.

‘Oliver sees me on the TV now and again where, obviously, they don’t call me “mummy” on the commentary,’ she says. ‘So he’ll turn round and go “Marlie, Marlie Packer!” and I have to tell him, “hey, it’s Mummy Pickle to you.”’

Oliver himself runs over at this point, with several Party Rings biscuits in hand to show his mum.

Marlie asks: ‘I’m just doing an interview, do you want to come help?’

Metro then asks the very important question to Oliver, ‘is your mummy cool?’ 

‘Yeah, he smiles widely.

Marlie follows it up with: ‘Is your mummy the best in the world at rugby?’

‘Yes!’ nods Oliver, excitedly.

Marlie adds: ‘What’s our favourite number?’

‘Seven!’ Oliver shouts, referring to Marlie’s shirt number.

For young Oliver, it’s normal to see a woman in rugby, a mum in sport. Marlie hopes this easy acceptance can be the same for the next generation of boys and girls.

Marlie Packer of England interacts with the fans with the trophy after the TikTok Women's Six Nations match between England and France at Twickenham Stadium on April 29, 2023 in London, England.

Marlie Packer with fans during the 2023 Six Nations (Photo by Paul Harding – RFU/The RFU Collection via Getty Images)

Marlie Packer of England with son Oliver following the Women's International rugby match between England Red Roses and Wales at Ashton Gate on September 14, 2022 in Bristol, England.

Marlie with Oliver at Ashton Gate on September 14, 2022 in Bristol, England (Photo by Catherine Ivill – RFU/The RFU Collection via Getty Images)

And she’s aware it’s not just her son she’s inspiring. Each week, a stack of hand-written letters and pictures arrive for Marlie at Saracens HQ. 

‘Sometimes people will send little gifts, which is really sweet,’ she says. ‘My favourite is a little wooden red rose. It’s really important to me that we engage with the fans and the kids who look up to us, as they’ve helped us reach where we are today.

‘I remember being in New Zealand in 2023, a year on from losing the World Cup there. We were singing the national anthem and my eyes found a young girl in the stands. She was looking right at me with a sign that said something like, “Marlie Packer, we love you.” Seeing my full name on that sign as I stood with the Red Roses, that was pretty special.’

Marlie spoke to Metro thanks to RFU’s principal shirt sponsor O2 ahead of the Guinness Women’s Six Nations.

O2 and RFU, in partnership with Women’s Sport Trust, are helping close rugby’s gender awareness gap with one of its key objectives to fill Twickenham Stadium for a women’s rugby match by 2025.

Tickets for the tournament are on sale now

Do you have a story you’d like to share? Get in touch by emailing Kirsten.Robertson@metro.co.uk 

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