The final whistle in our World Cup final victory over Canada brought with it delight at finally winning the sport’s biggest prize but also the painful realisation that I would never pull on the white shirt ever again.
I announced my retirement from international rugby this week on what was a very emotional day for me but deep down inside I knew that day had come as we celebrated on the pitch in Paris. I am obviously gutted at the prospect of not playing for England again and having spent the last 11 years giving everything I could it will be very difficult to step away. But at the same time I am very happy with what I have done and what the team have achieved in that time.
Winning the World Cup was the perfect way to bow out and will always be the highlight of my international career. After the final I struggled to find the words to describe my feelings but having had time to reflect on our win it is now a little easier. Winning was simply massive and was accompanied by a mixture of relief, having lost the last three finals, and happiness at having achieved something that as a team we had worked so hard for. It is such a great feeling because we all work hard for something but do not always achieve it and to finally get across the line was amazing.
Even more so for me personally because it was a case of now or never. I had knee surgery a couple of years ago that ruled me out of action for a couple of seasons and threatened to end my career completely, it was during that period that I realised that I needed to retire soon.
But I was still desperate to win the World Cup and so with my surgeon’s backing I launched a comeback and managed to get back in time for the World Cup. I was not only able to play but produce some of my best rugby and I felt great during the World Cup.
So much so that even now I catch myself thinking that perhaps I could play on for another three years and be part of the World Cup defence in 2017? And what about the Olympic Games in Rio and the prospect of gold medal? But deep down inside I knew I would have to retire after the World Cup whatever happened and luckily for me I got a dream ending.
I think I would rather finish on a high knowing I have done everything I possible can for myself and the team. The reality is that Rio will be amazing but there are many other fitter and faster players who are going to go out and do Great Britain proud. I am happy to retire from international rugby the way I am – as a World Cup winner, I will still be playing for my club Saracens and am determined to make sure we become Premiership champions this season.
I have also been very lucky to have been awarded a number of accolades. In 2006 I was named the International Rugby Board’s Player of the Year alongside the men’s winner Richie McCaw. Being named the Sunday Times’ Sportswoman of the Year was also amazing as was becoming the first female player to win the Pat Marshall Award voted for by the Rugby Union Writers’ Club. Most recently I was extremely honoured to receive an MBE for my services to rugby.
That of course does not stop me from being envious of the team-mates I leave behind. This is a very exciting time for women’s rugby and I am very jealous of the girls being given the opportunity to turn professional. I am really pleased for them and they are going to take rugby to another level once more – starting with what we hope will be a gold medal in Rio.
There have also been disappointments, most notably the injuries and the two World Cup final defeats I played in. But I refused to shy away from that reality and used the memory of that pain to fuel my fire this time around.
Losing those two finals has driven me on for the last eight years, in the final against Canada I and all the other players were determined not to let it happen again. We were going to do everything possible as a team to win it. We were adamant that we were not going to lose that game, as was our head coach Gary Street.
Gary is a brilliant coach and many of us have worked with him since we were 16 or 17 years old when he first spotted us during his time as a talent coach. Later he worked in the England set-up as part of the academy programme where I met him, then he went on to coach in the senior England set-up. It has been great to have him as a coach and he is someone I have a lot of respect for both as a coach and a friend.
He has been supported by two great assistants in Graham Smith, another experienced coach who has worked with me for many years, and Simon Middleton who joined us ahead of the World Cup and again is a very experienced and talented coach who only added to the mix.
Learn from Rugby World Cup 2011 winning coaches Sir Graham Henry and Wayne Smith
As grateful as I am to them for all their support and expertise, I don’t think I will be following them into the coaching ranks. I have done some coaching and I loved being part of a team and making sure a group of players worked hard to achieve something but I think I would rather commentate on the game from a distance.
It has been an incredible journey. My England debut against USA back in 2003 doesn’t seem that long ago. I remember I wore the No.12 shirt and scoring my first try capped a great day. I never thought that I would get the opportunity to represent my country and to do that at the age of 19 was amazing.
The secret to my longevity? I would urge all players to look after themselves, train hard and keep your body fit and healthy. When you are injured make sure you do the right rehab – that is what has kept me on the pitch for as long as I have.
Make sure you also enjoy yourself. When there have been times that I haven’t enjoyed it I have made a point of going back to find the reasons why I play the sport. We all go through highs and lows, especially in sport where we are not always going to be perfect, and it is about making sure you enjoy the journey – and if that’s not the case then find the reason why.
Help to create an enjoyable environment for your players to improve, watch Eddie Jones – Creating Team Culture
Another key thing for me was I always had a goal. From a young age my aim was to play for England and I achieved that. Then I wanted people to know my name and in 2006 I became the IRB Player of the Year. After that I determined to become a world champion and that is what has kept me going the last few years and finally I achieved that goal.
Of course I will miss playing international rugby. I loved playing at the highest level but thankfully the standard of the club game is improving all the time and every time I turn out for Saracens I am playing against really good players.
I will also really miss playing with my friends, people you enjoy being with both on and off the pitch. But what I’ll miss most of all is singing the national anthem in front of a big crowd and hearing them sing it back to you. That is a very emotional and beautiful experience – you can’t ask for anything more.
What is your favourite moment, or big hit, from Maggie’s career? Maggie talks about setting goals, how do you set goals in training, games and in your rugby career?