Sarah Hunter explains why her new England coaching role was ‘too big an opportunity to turn down’
Retirement may have finally come for Sarah Hunter but there are still gongs to be received. There is little the former World Rugby Player of the Year did not achieve on the field as a player and, a matter of weeks after her hometown farewell, it feels only fitting that England’s most capped player now joins the Rugby Players’ Association’s Hall of Fame.
“It’s such an honour,” Hunter tells The Independent of joining a group that reads as a who’s who of rugby greats. “You look at the names who are in that Hall of Fame and to be put alongside them is pretty special.”
For Hunter, the honour is all the more special given the identity of her fellow inductee this year. Doddie Weir’s absence has been felt since the great man’s passing last November, the former lock’s exploits on the field surpassed by his resilience, character and fundraising spirit after being diagnosed with motor neurone disease (MND). In a week where Kevin Sinfield moved many to tears with an act of true friendship for the pair’s shared mate Rob Burrow, the Scot’s posthumous induction feels particularly timely.
“He’s one of the most extraordinary people that the game of rugby will ever see,” Hunter says of the late Scotland lock, inducted alongside her at Wednesday night’s awards extravaganza in London. “What he did as a player but also what he went on to do with the MND community as a whole after that is pretty remarkable really. I’ve got no doubt that his legacy will last forever.”
As for Hunter, there has been no smooth, relaxing ease into playing retirement. The 37-year-old’s first weeks as a former rugby player have been packed with ambassadorial work and media duties, two fields in which Hunter has slid typically seamlessly.
But it is in coaching that Hunter’s more immediate ambitions lie. As we speak, Hunter is preparing for the final few rounds of the Premier 15s season as an assistant at Loughborough Lightning. Her initial plan had been to remain with the club side where she spent the last years of her playing career, but come the summer, Hunter will embark on a new coaching challenge as part of a new-look England set-up led by John Mitchell.
The immediate transition from international player to international coach will pose obvious challenges, but Hunter is excited to get going in a role that will see the ex-England captain work to develop the next generation of Red Roses, helping them transition to the senior side, as well as assisting the senior squad with more detailed coaching input.
“There’s always that bit where you take a step back and speak to a few different people about if it is the right role,” Hunter admits. “Is it the right time? But I just kept leaning towards the fact that this could be too big an opportunity to turn down, being able to be involved working towards a home World Cup.
“I hadn’t come across [John Mitchell] before this. When I was offered the job, I was aware that he was going to be head coach which was one of the real deciding factors because of how well regarded he is within the coaching world. I just felt it was a great environment for someone relatively new on their coaching journey to be able to learn from. Having spoken to John, he’s a really big believer in helping coaches develop and learn. That really aligned with what I wanted to do and how I want to get better.
“He’s been brilliant since I’ve spoken to him, the way he thinks about the game, the way he wants to evolve it and bring in his stamp on it. I know there were a few comments about the fact that he’d not worked in women’s rugby, but I’d love to get to the point where we don’t call it women’s rugby and men’s rugby. Everyone should have the same opportunity regardless of what their background is. Having spoken to the girls, it is quite nice that there is no preconception on what they do or how they play, they’ll be taken on face value of what he wants for his side and how he wants to play.”
Recognising that the association was perhaps slightly slow to get behind the women’s game in the past, the RPA now have big ambitions driven by Christian Day, with hopes they can extend their offering more deeply into the Premier 15s as more widespread professionalism arrives. The group has been negotiating a number of aspects of the Red Roses contracts, which renew in July – a potential increase in the value, number and length of these are thought to have been discussed.
Ensuring that players are appropriately supported and rewarded are crucial to maintain the momentum in the sport. Hunter turned down the chance to lead England out in a first standalone fixture at Twickenham that surpassed all expectations, bowing out in Newcastle at the start of the tournament instead. It is a decision about which Hunter insists she has no regrets, leaving her clear to revel in an occasion that she, and so many like her, had fought for so long to make possible - with the prospect of many more to come.
“I knew it was going to be a great day but it went bove and beyond what I expected it to be,” Hunter recalls. “I was like a kid at Christmas. It was a very different atmosphere, in many ways a much more positive atmosphere. It felt like a celebration for everyone involved in the women’s game, to recognise all those who have gone before and, more importantly, all those who are going to come again.
“For me, it is about having a real clear plan now. We’ve got this momentum and we want to keep with this momentum. We can’t be talking about one-off games like this one or last year’s World Cup final and wait for 2025 to come along, we have to keep this momentum going and that’s the real key thing. We have to make sure everyone is working together to make sure the next two and a half years are the best we’ve seen in the women’s game.”
Sarah Hunter was inducted into the RPA’s Hall of Fame at this year’s Eterlast RPA Awards.