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England captain Sarah Hunter believes women’s rugby has not even “scratched the surface” in terms of how big a sport it can become.
Hunter’s team are the global pace-setters two months out from an eagerly anticipated World Cup in New Zealand.
They top the world rankings, have won four successive Six Nations titles and are unbeaten for 23 Tests since losing to New Zealand in 2019.
Such impressive achievements help underpin England’s status as World Cup favourites as they bid to reclaim a trophy they last won eight years ago.
Hunter, a pillar of the women’s game who has won 134 caps during a 15-year international career, has been inspired by England’s stunning success at Women’s Euro 2022.
And her excitement for what the future holds is almost tangible, highlighting the Red Roses’ move to professional contracts in 2019 as a huge moment.
The Rugby Football Union, meanwhile, recently unveiled plans to invest more than £200million over a 10-year period into the domestic Premier 15s competition, with an ultimate aim of making it a fully professional league.
— England Rugby (@EnglandRugby) August 1, 2022
“I certainly think turning professional in 2019 has helped enormously,” Hunter told the PA news agency.
“It allows that freshness. We don’t have to go back to a full-time profession outside of rugby. Our sole focus is on being a rugby player and managing that.
“On your down-time you can switch off, you can recover and get the right nutrition in, which ultimately allows you to perform better when you get on the field, whether for a game or for training.
“It allows you to spend more time doing analysis, more time developing as an individual, whatever it might be.
“Being professional allows you to become a better player and have more time with the team and not fit everything into a weekend after going to work for a week, which is what we used to do.
“That has been such a significant change-up for us, especially since 2019.”
Hunter anticipates a fiercely competitive World Cup, which kicks off in early October with England facing pool games against Fiji, France and South Africa.
“The level has gone up, there is increased competitiveness in the game,” the 36-year-old added.
📢An historic moment for women's rugby in Wales The first contracts are set to be offered to female players as part of a major investment in our women’s performance programme FULL STORY https://t.co/8Fz4HFFg8I pic.twitter.com/F7lRZ8jSmH
— Welsh Rugby Union 🏉 (@WelshRugbyUnion) November 3, 2021
“And the really exciting thing is that I don’t think it has even scratched the surface. I think we will see in the next couple of years it going on to bigger and better things.
“Ireland have announced contracts, Scotland and Wales too, and that’s just the home nations. New Zealand already have them, the French have a hybrid system.
“Players are starting at a younger age, they are having better coaching in better environments.
“The pathway in place in England and what they are exposed to means that as they are coming through they are so talented they are adding that edge, the drive and standards that the players currently in the game need to raise to.
“It just keeps snowballing, which is what has elevated the standard of the women’s game to the next level.”
World Cup success would see England continue huge momentum for women’s sport generated by the Lionesses.
“It (winning the World Cup) is our target, and we don’t shy away from that,” Hunter said.
“It is the ambition of this squad, but there are a lot of other nations vying for that as well.
“We will put our best foot forward, and on November 12 we will see who ends up lifting the trophy.”