Almost 16 years ago a quietly determined 21-year-old from North Tyneside won her first cap for England, coming off the bench in front of a couple of hundred souls at Old Albanians RFC. Sarah Hunter did not do much in her five minutes on the field – “I probably touched the ball once and made one tackle” – but it marked the start of a rugby odyssey that is about to propel her past every England player – of either sex – to have pulled on a white jersey.
Of course there is a bigger picture as her Red Roses seek to knock out Australia on Sunday and reach the last four of a World Cup they are desperate to win. Sitting in a modest second-floor hotel room in downtown Auckland, even so, there was no disguising Hunter’s intense pride at the imminent arrival of cap No 138, overtaking the great Rocky Clark and leaving her nearest male challengers Ben Youngs and Jason Leonard even further behind.
She may have thrown fewer passes than Youngs and sunk fewer career pints than Leonard but the 37-year-old Hunter is the cool, calm and capable personification of how far the women’s game has progressed since she took her first tentative international steps in St Albans. From amateur to professional, from the fringes to the biggest of stages: even she still finds it slightly surreal. “It’s crazy to sit here 138 caps later. I can’t get my head around it. But I think the girl who won that first cap would be very proud if she knew where the journey was going to go.”
Perhaps her most remarkable achievement has been making it all look so relatively effortless. Beneath the polite, smiley exterior lies a woman who clearly has an inner lining of tungsten. For years the back-rower has not only endured in one of the game’s most attritional positions but also shouldered captaincy duties without a hint of complaint. Imagine a modern-day Boadicea with a north-east accent and an oval ball under her arm and it becomes ever more clear why her team of English warriors are unbeaten in their last 28 Tests.
No wonder there is now a mural of her up on the wall of Novocastrians RFC where she first took up rugby union aged 15. “I played rugby league to start with and didn’t even know there was an England women’s team until I was about 16.” When she made her England debut in February 2007, the old RFUW was still officially separate from the Rugby Football Union and the team did not even wear a rose on their chests. “We had what we used to joke was a tulip, or a rosebud that hadn’t quite blossomed yet. It hadn’t quite been allowed to come out and show what women’s rugby was about.”
More dispiriting still was a sense of being second class citizens to their male counterparts. “We didn’t have the same sponsors as the men, we weren’t on TV, we didn’t have the audiences we do now. For my debut at Old Albanians I reckon there were about 100-200 people there, probably all our friends and family.” At the time, though, Hunter was more anxious about singing the national anthem. “I didn’t want to mess the national anthem up. I’m a terrible singer so I was really conscious of the people I stood next to. There were some incredible greats in that team. Maggie Alphonsi was playing, Sue Day was captain. You had all these great players and suddenly I was playing alongside them, I had real imposter syndrome.”
Fast forward to this week and, aside from her continuing penchant for singing Sloop John B by the Beach Boys on the team bus – “It’s the only song I know all the words to” – it is a different world. England’s women are now full-time professionals and on course for a globally-screened World Cup final at Eden Park. Close to a million viewers tuned in to their pool game against France a fortnight ago and interest continues to rise. As Hunter says: “The investment in the game and being seen on terrestrial TV has shifted things enormously. I feel pretty lucky to have experienced it.”
The cherry on the top would be the world crown that frustratingly eluded Hunter and England in 2017. While the Red Roses remain firm favourites they have reached the point where there is no safety net in the event of a stumble. As the head coach, Simon Middleton, acknowledges, failure would be a crushing blow for all involved. “Personally it’s a huge fear. I don’t like losing. It’s a massive driver in everything I’ve ever done. Ultimately all you can do is prepare your very best and try your very hardest.”
In those latter respects England are ticking along nicely, with Hunter suggesting they are now poised to raise their game another notch. “I’m not sure we’ve seen as good a session as we had yesterday for a long time, if ever. We’re exactly where we need to be.” The prospect of a wet North Island weekend will also not concern the English unduly, given the strength of their driving maul and the close-quarters pressure they love to exert.
The selection of Tatyana Heard at inside-centre is also indicative of English intent against a Wallaroos side made up of part-time players. Middleton is hopeful that by 2025 all World Cup teams will be professional – “It would be great to think so, you can see the potential in some of those sides is massive” – but Hunter has been around long enough not to allow peripheral issues or personal milestones to distract her. “I’m immensely proud but we’re in knockout rugby now and don’t get any second chances. Individual accolades are great but we’re here for one reason. We can’t take our eye off Australia.”
Which means all the backslapping and congratulations from her teammates will remain very much secondary to the squad’s primary mission. “I’m hoping it will go unnoticed and we can just roll on into the next game. They’ll know me, I just want to focus on Australia. Winning a World Cup quarter-final would be the biggest thing that could mark the game for me.” It is a long way from St Albans to Auckland – 11,373 miles to be precise – but the steely, competitive Hunter is essentially the same as she ever was.