Marlie Packer interview: ‘I want my son to see his mum win a World Cup’

Zoom call interruptions have become a wearying part of daily life in the pandemic, but they are not always unwelcome. Towards the end of a chat with Marlie Packer about motherhood, rugby and everything in between when she breaks off to fetch six-month-old Oliver. 

Everyone knows Packer as the ferociously competitive forward who has driven England’s Red Roses to two World Cup finals, winning one, but this is an insight into Marlie the mum – a softer, more reflective character, with a new sense of perspective on her life and work. 

The task of juggling motherhood and elite sport is never less than onerous, and neither is there one right path to follow. In December, Katy Daley-Mclean – who was Packer’s captain in the World Cup triumph of 2014 – shocked the sport by retiring from Tests to spend more time with her daughter and partner. Packer has made a different decision to continue to strive at the highest level.

The 31-year-old explains that Daley-Mclean has been a “sounding board” but that they are in different places in their careers and with the ages of their children. If anything, Packer is more motivated than ever after her partner Natasha gave birth last September. 

Marlie Packer of England charges upfield during the Women's Rugby World Cup 2017 Semi Final match between England and France at the Kingspan Stadium on August 22, 2017 in Belfast


Packer in action during the 2017 World Cup semi-final – England lost to New Zealand 41-32 in the final


Credit: Getty Images Europe /David Rogers 

“I never would have said before that I would be more motivated to win a World Cup or Six Nations but I want to be a world champion again and for Oliver to remember that,” she tells Telegraph Sport. “I want him to be here in 2022 to say he watched mummy becoming a world champion rather than me just telling him about 2014. 

“It really drives me now to be the best I can. With every game I play now being streamed or on television, he watches with Natasha because they can’t come to the games.”

There are increasing numbers of women’s rugby players in same sex couples having children – as well as Packer and Daley-Mclean, England’s Claire Purdy had a baby boy in 2016. But the subject of same sex parenthood is not broached as openly in rugby as it is in football, for instance. 

Packer is frank on her experience as a gay parent and explains that part of the reason she is speaking out is that the absence of her father during her formative years has given her a different perspective on parenthood.

“My dad was in and out of my life when I was young – then in 2014, six months out from the World Cup, he died,” she says. “That was quite a difficult time for me but my dad was never a presence in my life every day. People say that their fathers are their idols but for me, my dad was like when you crave something you never have. I just craved him so much because I never had him.

“I do worry about Oliver a bit for when he goes to school – that he has two mums in a gay relationship. But we live in a different generation. I think he has two parents who will love him endlessly and anything he wants within reason, he will get. He will be very loved.

“With all respect, my mum did an amazing job as a single parent and my grandparents were fantastic helping, but Oliver will have two parents who will do anything for him. And that is all I think it should be about.”

Packer reveals that she and Natasha had been initially anxious about breaking the news but that Oliver has been accepted with open arms from both families.

“It is has been really nice how accepting people have been. We were both a little bit worried about telling certain people in our families but when we told them, they were all super happy that Natasha was pregnant and we were having a child,” she says. “I know my mum never thought she was going to be a grandma anytime soon. She has been absolutely over the moon.”

Team-mates have also been delighted by the arrival of Oliver and Packer seems almost giddy as she describes all the gifts that have been showered on her – particularly a customised babygrow with No 7 from Poppy and Bryony Cleall.

She is also honest in explaining that when she hangs up her boots, she would be keen to grow the family and possibly carry a baby in the future. She was inspired by the experience of Natasha giving birth and what she learnt in ante-natal classes, albeit virtual ones.

“I learnt a lot, not just for how to support Natasha as her partner for birthing but when it is my turn to have a baby,” she says. “I would definitely like to carry a baby but I want to focus on rugby over the next few years. The World Cup is obviously massive. You only get to play international rugby for a very short amount of time and then I will have time after that.” 

England's players celebrate with the trophy after winning the IRB Women's Rugby World Cup final match between England and Canada at the Jean Bouin Stadium in Paris on August 17, 2014


England beat Canada to win the 2014 World Cup in Paris


Credit: ALAIN JOCARD/AFP/Getty Images

Packer’s feelings are exacerbated by her World Cup experience of 2014, where the euphoria of winning was dulled by her father’s death. Reflecting now, she actually found defeat in 2017’s final against New Zealand easier to handle despite the acclaim that came her way.

“I think I dealt with losing better than I did with winning in 2014. Then, I was very depressed after my dad died –although not knowingly. I just focused everything on rugby. We won this World Cup, which was sensational, I got the freedom of Yeovil, and there was a big ball for me. But I was sad.

“I was smiling, and it wasn’t a fake smile, but I was very sad on the inside because I didn’t deal with the stuff around my dad. So, 2017 it was what it was, someone wins the game and someone loses the game.

“In 2014 I felt I should have been really happy but actually with the following weeks, I wasn’t very happy but I didn’t know that at the time. Whereas in 2017, I was very in touch with my emotions and I had also just met Natasha that year which probably helped in that sense.

“Don’t get me wrong what happened in 2017 was gutting but it just wasn’t meant to be. I am one of those people who believes everything happens for a reason.”

The Marlie Packer of 2021 seems like a very different person to the 25-year-old who lifted the World Cup and again that comes back to Oliver’s presence in her life.

“I would have been worrying a lot about what the coaches thought or I would re-watch a game the moment I got home. Now, when I get home on a Saturday, I go through the door and I give Oliver a big cuddle. 

“Being a mum has made me a lot more open-minded, it has made me realise there is a lot more to life than just rugby. Before Oliver, I didn’t think there was much more outside of rugby. I know now that when I put my boots away life is just beginning.”

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