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Jones: Alphsoni has shifted the game on its axis

Last week England star Maggie Alphonsi won the Sunday Times Sportswoman of the year award beating off stiff competition from a host of better known UK sports names. The newspaper's rugby union correspondent Stephen Jones wrote over the weekend about Alphonsi's impact on the global game which we have reprinted with permission below.

By Stephen Jones

Sunday Times Rugby Correspondent

Maggie Alphonsi (pcitured with ball left) was simply enjoying the evening. She was in her seat as the presentations began at the Sunday Times Sportswoman of the Year Awards, held on Monday at the headquarters of the British Olympic Association in London. She was on the shortlist chosen by our distinguished panel, chaired by Radio 5 Lives Eleanor Oldroyd. But she did not expect to have to leave her seat anytime soon.

The modesty was typical of the woman, but misplaced. Admittedly, the competition was frightening. I was so proud to be there at all, with all those fantastic sportswomen, she said.

Also short-listed were Jessica Ennis, the heptathlete who took gold in the European and the World Indoor Games; Fran Halsall, who won 10 medals at the European swimming championships and Commonwealth Games; Beth Tweddle, world champion on the uneven bars; cyclist Emma Pooley, who won the UCI world championships road race time-trial in Australia; and Amy Williams, who slid so gloriously to Olympic gold in Vancouver in the skeleton bob.

In essence, Alphonsi, 26, and from Lewisham in south London, an amateur sportswoman holding down a full-time job, had won nothing. She was a member of the England team that lost to New Zealand in the final of the Womens World Cup in August.

So why, after a record readers poll, was she not only chosen as our 2010 Sportswoman of the Year, but by a thumping margin? For an individual in one of the ultimate team sports, it was a stunning achievement.

To win had been a distant thought for me. Then to hear my name, and to hear that the poll was a record, was incredibly special, she said. Even better, it was something decided by the public. I felt that I was the underdog, and I have to give a massive thank you to everyone who supported me.

In my humble opinion, our readers were spot on. For all the powerful claims of an outstanding group of contenders, Alphonsi achieved something that none of the others did. She changed her sport forever, shifting the whole thing on its axis. The World Cup was an extraordinary success, and the profile of womens rugby was illustrated by a 13,000 crowd for the final, and a record global television audience. In all of this, a dedicated, high-quality and personable England team played a leading role.

Alphonsi was the talisman, the Pied Piper. She is uncomfortable being detached from the collective for praise but she was easily the figure of the tournament, so brilliant as a flanker, so imposing in attack and defence and so wonderful at the breakdown. It was one of the greatest individual performances I have seen from either sex.

It was her thunderous physicality that stood out above all else. The tournament saw such a physical crunch to proceedings that all remaining reservations about the ability of women to play powerful rugby at elite level were scattered to the four winds.

Alphonsi was explosive. There was a roar every time she was in possession. She made bursts and tackles of such power that to the uninitiated, they must have seemed frightening. Rebecca Alphonsi, her mother who drove her thousands of miles in the formative sporting years, may or may not have watched it all with eyes closed.

And afterwards, all 1.65m (5ft 5in) and 74.8kg (11st 11lb) of her, spoke with an ambassadorial excellence. Maggie has given new impetus to the growth of the game, impressed so many doubters, changed the perception of others, and changed the way it is played for ever.

She has reaped her own rewards. In her capacity as elite player development manager for the Rugby Football Union, she has found recognition, warmth and young people wanting to follow her.

Dads and mums with daughters have come up to me talking about bringing them to play rugby. They tell me Ive done a wonderful thing, she said.

Her profile suddenly rocketed, and I wondered how comfortable she had been in the limelight.

We had the goal to become world champions but as the tournament went on, attention was being drawn towards me as an individual, she said.

You have to be modest, but also happy about it. My life has changed, but it has changed for the better. When I go to clubs where they may start a womens or girls team, the chairman and the committee know me.

Those who are close to her realise the hidden sub-plot. She was devastated that England lost the World Cup final. We had the hopes of the nation and we lost by three points. It was devastating. It had been a target for me for years.

There was a short time when I felt so low that I didnt feel like carrying on, she said. But the goals are re-set and the gleam has returned to her eyes. All 26 players in the squad are even more motivated to keep going. I love what I am doing again, I am dedicated to improving in all the physical and tactical and technical areas. There is another chance in four years.

She is happy to be integrated into the team ethic again, even though she is the most famous player womens rugby has ever produced. I am so proud of the England team and what we achieved, she said. And we are proud of our Sportswoman of the Year.

Last week, a club in Sussex trumpeted her impending arrival to take a coaching session for young female players. Maggie Alphonsi comes to Brighton! said the website advert. It was as if the Queen was coming. Come to think of it, she is.