It is an overcast day and Sarah Hunter is clutching only a towel in Bayonne. It is May 2022, the Red Roses are on the verge of completing a fourth successive unbeaten Women’s Six Nations campaign and their skipper can only watch on with a grimace. An untimely rib injury had ended Hunter’s tournament a week before the trip to the Basque Country – even the slightest of chuckles sent shoots of pain to her chest.
The rib injury that troubled her was a significant one, the towel about all she was permitted to lift before the time came to hoist the Six Nations trophy again. Having tried unsuccessfully to convince the medical staff to let her play on painkillers, Hunter’s attention turned to how best she could help out. While other players might have stayed at home, or flown down purely for the Saturday celebrations, come the Wednesday before the game, the England skipper was on a 6am flight from Stansted Airport to ensure she was there to support her squad in whatever way she could.
It spoke volumes about a character who has come to be a defining figure in the growth of the women’s game. To track Hunter’s story it is necessary to go back to the beginning, her career straddling distinct epochs of the sport as the game slowly evolved from amateur to professional. Hunter made her England debut on the outskirts of St Albans, a converted centre bounding out for a cameo appearance in the back row in front of a scattered selection of largely family and friends at Old Albanians Rugby Club.
As if to illustrate how far the game has moved on since that cold February day, her penultimate England appearance came at a sold-out Eden Park, 40,000 New Zealanders screaming their support for the Black Ferns as the Red Roses were denied at the death.
She bows out on Saturday evening in her hometown, a packed house at Kingston Park in Newcastle ensuring a perfect send-off. Hunter has dealt with plenty of defeats – three losses in World Cup finals speak to that – but has been a mainstay of a succession of great England sides, serving as a vital lieutenant to her great mate Katy Daley-Mclean in the 2014 tournament triumph.
There were periods of severe doubt, too: while suffering from a neural issue during the autumn of 2020, Hunter was unable to tie her shoelaces and feared for her future in the sport. At 35 and in a period of such upheaval, it might have been easier to move on, pursue a burgeoning punditry career or seek challenges elsewhere.
But Hunter, as she has for so long, remained. There have been times in the past two years when Hunter’s place has been questioned – Saracens’ Poppy Cleall is a No 8 successor-in-waiting already producing at a high-class level. But such are her qualities that the back row used the competition to take her game to another level during a record winning run, surpassing Rocky Clark as England’s most-capped international during the World Cup last year.
“Sarah is the most honest and professional player I have ever known, let alone worked with,” her head coach Simon Middleton said this week. “Throughout her career, her commitment to being the best version of herself at every opportunity has shone through in her attention to detail and faultless preparation. She’s an absolute inspiration for everybody who has played with her or worked with her and is the ultimate example to every young person who would want to play.”
Speak to any of her teammates and you will hear of a model professional, widely reputed as the best trainer in the squad, whose drive, high standards and selflessness epitomised her team. It has been indicated to The Independent that conflicts within the England squad could have led to greater fracture if not for Hunter’s steadying, binding presence.
Not necessarily the most individually talented, it was her caring qualities, leadership and sheer consistency that made her the perfect captain for the current record-setting iteration of the Red Roses, always going above and beyond for the betterment of her team.
The No 8 served as an impeccable spokeswoman for both England and the game at large. Whatever the topic, Hunter was able to hold forth with a measured and intelligent view, even when conversation strayed outside of her remit. Fiercely loyal to her squad, a stint balancing her playing career with an assistant coaching role at Loughborough Lightning suggests that she has a bright future on the touchline if she wishes to pursue it.
“For me, she is probably one of the best leaders that women’s sport has ever seen, let alone women’s rugby,” Rachel Malcolm, Scotland captain and a teammate at Loughborough, said last week. “I would argue that there is not a player that has influenced the game as much as she has.
“I look at her in training, and even still, that is what I aspire to be because she never gives less than 110 per cent. In terms of role models, it doesn’t get much better than that, and she is a really kind human being as well.
“The way she performs every single time she goes on the pitch, for her club, for training, for England: that is what being a rugby player is about.”
Sixteen years on from Hunter’s debut, and five weeks after her retirement, on the final weekend of the Women’s Six Nations, England will play in front of a record crowd in the first standalone Red Roses fixture at Twickenham. Would such an occasion have been possible without Hunter? Probably, but there can be no quibbling that women’s rugby has been a better place thanks to her involvement. Her Kingston Park curtain call, just a couple of miles from the very fields where she first fell in love with the game, will ensure a fitting farewell for a true rugby great.
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