Sarah Hunter interview: Why England’s most-capped player is retiring one game into the Six Nations
It was on the pitches behind Kingston Park that Sarah Hunter first played rugby union, having initially picked up an oval ball in league. It was in the surrounds of the stadium that she used to sell match programmes, the job giving her the opportunity to watch the games too. And it is on the pitch at Newcastle Falcons’ home ground that she will play her final game of rugby on Saturday.
“It’s full circle, I started playing in Newcastle and I’ll finish in Newcastle,” says England’s most-capped player of her decision to retire after the Red Roses’ opening Women’s Six Nations match against Scotland. “Newcastle is my home town and it’s been a dream to play there. For me, there is something special about finishing in the north; I’m so proud to come from the North East. You have to draw a line in the sand and this felt like the right time. Not many people get to finish where they started and to finish on their terms, so I’m lucky that I’ve got the opportunity to do that.”
There are no guarantees that the 37-year-old will be selected to play in what would be her 141st Test match. She wants to earn her spot as she has done throughout her international career – “I’ve always wanted to be picked on merit, not just because it’s sentiment, but I do think since I’ve made the decision I’ve been playing some decent rugby, running around like a 21-year-old again.” However, you would expect Simon Middleton, the England head coach, to give the player he appointed captain in 2015 the opportunity to lead the team out one last time as they target a fifth straight Six Nations title.
As soon as she had settled on retiring after discussions with her boyfriend, Nathan, and her parents, Hunter “felt like a weight had been lifted” after months of wrestling with the decision. Should she play on after last year’s desperately disappointing World Cup final defeat in New Zealand? Or should she step aside to allow the next generation game time with the 2025 World Cup edging into view?
“I had real contrasting emotions, was I done or not done? Then I got to the decision that I wanted to play in the Newcastle game, that was a big driver, but I wasn’t sure how much more after that. There are two-and-a-half years until the next World Cup and I’m not playing in that and the team needs as much time as possible, so I want them to have the time and ability to find their way, what that looks like and who that looks like.
“I really battled – is it right to play, is it not right to play? My whole approach to playing for England has always been about the team, how the team can best perform, being the best player for the team, so I really battled with whether it was the right decision to make for the team. Some people might look at it and think it’s selfish having one more game at Newcastle but I’d like to think it isn’t. We’re in a period of change, we’re missing a lot of leaders and there are a lot of injuries, so I think being around at the start of the tournament I can help bring the new players up to speed on how we play, what it means to be part of the Red Roses…”
Emily Scarratt, one of Hunter’s long-time team-mates, knows better than most how much the back-rower brings to the England environment. “We all know how great a player and leader she is, but she’s also a phenomenal person, which for me is the thing that always made me respect her most,” says fellow Red Roses centurion Scarratt. “The way she goes about her business, the care she has for people, the kindness she shows, how passionate she is about the game and girls playing it… She’s unbelievable in terms of being a role model and an inspiration. She is mega and will be a huge loss to the game, but if anyone deserves a well-earned rest and a healthy retirement it is her.”
Rather than play out the rest of the championship, Hunter has offered her services to Middleton and the team off the field should they need it, be that working with the younger players in the squad or helping Marlie Packer – named co-captain ahead of the Six Nations – in terms of leadership. Equally, she is ready to step aside if the squad “want to go their own way” after she has played her final match.
As for long-term plans, they are still to be decided. She will continue to work with the forwards at Loughborough Lightning, dropping the ‘player’ from her player-coach role. She may dip her toe into punditry and she is keen to be involved in some capacity with that World Cup on English soil in 2025. Whether coaching is the path she follows long-term she is not yet sure; she recognises the need for more female coaches but will also not be applying for the Red Roses head coach role that Middleton is vacating at the end of April when this Six Nations concludes.
“That job now requires someone who has an incredible wealth of experience at a high level of rugby,” she says. “It’s not for someone to come out of playing and go into the head coach role, having only been coaching for a few years.
“I really enjoy coaching at the minute and I feel I have a lot to work on to push to become a better coach. It’s time to take a step back, to see what really interests me and what I’m passionate about because that’s what I’ve been for the last 15 years about playing for my country.”
During that decade and a half, Hunter has witnessed huge changes in the women’s game. When she first played, the England women’s team was run separately to the Rugby Football Union, their shirts had a different crest and players juggled playing commitments with full-time jobs. Now more than 30 Red Roses are on full-time professional RFU contracts and matches are being watched by millions on free-to-air television.
“It’s ridiculous to be at this point from where I came from, it’s game-changing and something I never envisioned when I first started playing. Would I want to be starting to play now, to change my era? Absolutely not, I’ve loved it. I might not have liked the early mornings or the stress of working a full-time job alongside playing, but I fully appreciate being part of the amateur world and now the professional world, the journey we’ve been on. And we’ve only scratched the surface of where the women’s game can go professionally.”
In terms of where the women’s game should go next, Hunter raises three points and all centre on money: more investment by national federations into their women’s teams so competing countries at the 2029 World Cup all have some form of professional contracts; more investment into the Premier 15s so non-international players also have the chance to be professional; more investment into the grass-roots game to develop more female players, coaches, referees and administrators.
You sense that whatever Hunter does next she will play a part in continuing to take women’s rugby forward.