During her childhood, Sarah Hunter used to sell matchday programmes at Kingston Park and today (SAT), her life will come full circle when she ends her glittering career at the same Newcastle venue.
By her own admission, Hunter has achieved far more she ever thought possible as an aspiring rugby player, predominantly because doing so as a woman was not an option at the time. The 37-year-old’s spell in the sport has been remarkable.
When she first played for England, the women’s team was not even under the RFU’s jurisdiction.
They weren’t allowed to wear the traditional English red rose on their chest. Now, the Red Roses are fully professional.
Hunter’s spanning of that era of change will perhaps be her greatest legacy, more so than her on-field successes.
Sarah Hunter will make her final appearance for England this weekend before retiring
Hunter is England’s most capped women’s player and her career will go full circle in Newcastle
She used to sell programmes at Kingston Park and will now play her last match there
There have still been plenty of those including one World Cup, 10 Six Nations titles, and nine Grand Slams. She is England’s most capped player of all time.
Saturday will be her 141st and last international appearance. Hunter will retire immediately after England’s Six Nations opener with Scotland and it is entirely fitting her final game is being played in her home city of Newcastle.
‘Never in a million years did I think that young girl selling programmes at Newcastle games would ever go on to have the journey I have,’ Hunter told Sportsmail.
‘I’d have said to her “You’re crazy!” because at that point I knew there was an England women’s team. But when I first started I hadn’t got a clue. I just played for the love of the game.
‘It’s been incredible. To have seen and been part of such change has been eye-opening. So much work has been put in by so many people to drive for professionalism.
‘When I think back to my first cap to now, it’s just poles apart. I feel privileged to have been part of that change. What’s so incredibly exciting is where the game can go now. We’ve only just scratched the surface. I won’t be playing in the future but it’s brilliant for all the girls who will be.
‘There’s the World Cup in England in 2025. I think women’s rugby is going to explode.’
No 8 Hunter will surely go down in history as one of England rugby’s greatest players.
Her longevity at the top level since her international debut in 2007 has been remarkable.
She has been England captain since 2015 and Kingston Park will be full to bursting on Saturday to bid her farewell.
Hunter’s friends and family, many of whom still live in Newcastle, will be there. ‘In the early days you just want to play for England,’ said Hunter.
‘But then when you take a step back and grow up, you realise you’ve got another huge role to play to inspire the next generation.
There are players in our squad for this weekend who have said they grew up watching me play. It’s great they’ve had role models to look up to.
‘When I was growing up, there was no social media, no media interest, and no awareness. Now it’s so different. We’re so visible as Red Roses and people can see us and aspire to be us.
‘Winning the trophies I have will always be really special for me but knowing I’ve had a bigger impact than just that is huge. It’s something I’m really passionate about.’
Hunter will continue as a player-coach at Loughborough for the rest of this season after retirement but her future must surely lie with the RFU and continuing to grow the women’s game.
England will host the next World Cup in 2025. The RFU’s hope is they will sell out Twickenham for the final.
Hunter said she was ‘privileged’ to play the sport and claimed she’d seen Women’s rugby grow
She said Saturday’s match will be a ‘fairy-tale ending’ and was ‘lucky’ to chose her ending
‘It’s a fairy-tale ending,’ said Hunter, a proud Geordie who watched Newcastle’s football team beaten by Manchester United in their Carabao Cup final defeat at Wembley last month.
‘When I thought about retiring I didn’t think I’d ever have an opportunity to play back home where it all started. It seems a fitting way to go out. It feels the right thing to do.
‘I want to enjoy the moment but I still have a game to play and have to perform. It’s my last game and not many people get to choose their ending. I feel so lucky I do.’
England vs Scotland – Women’s Six Nations Today (SAT): 4.45pm. Kingston Park, Newcastle TV: BBC2
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