Premier 15s Player of the Year Mo Hunt playing with a smile on her face
Ultimately, the Allianz Premier 15s fixture schedule ensured Natasha ‘Mo’ Hunt was unable to soak up the acclaim of her peers in person on Wednesday night.
At roughly the time Hunt would have been picking a line between tables at the Rugby Players’ Association Awards in London, the Premier 15s Player of the Year was instead working hard on a training pitch in Gloucester.
Back-to-back Sunday assignments meant that Gloucester-Hartpury squad training had been shifted 24 hours, and therefore the team’s co-captain would have to accept the award and ensuing adulation from afar.
Not that she would have wanted to be anywhere other than helping to focus minds ahead of the visit of Harlequins and driving on her side’s push for Premier 15s glory. Missing the glitzy ceremony certainly didn’t dim the pride she felt at being recognised by her fellow players.
“It’s pretty surreal, to be honest, definitely a little bit overwhelming, the year I’ve had,” Hunt tells RugbyPass as she attempts to put her achievement into words.
“For it to be a players’ vote, especially players that aren’t from your own team, I guess it just means everything to be honest. I’m very humbled.”
When Hunt references the season she has had, she is not merely talking about the seven Premier 15s tries she has scored or the 14 wins Gloucester-Hartpury have amassed on their surge to the top of the table with only three rounds of the regular season to play.
Her campaign started with the crushing disappointment of missing out on selection for the England squad that travelled to New Zealand for Rugby World Cup 2021.
It is testament to Hunt’s resilience that she has responded to that blow by playing the best rugby of her career.
Her form for Gloucester-Hartpury led to a Red Roses recall during the TikTok Women’s Six Nations, but the 34-year-old’s stunning season has been driven by positivity rather than the grinding of any axe.
“The one thing about me is I play the same game no matter what and it’s the pride that I have in my own values and how I do stuff,” Hunt explains.
“If I’ve thrown a pass and it’s not quite good enough, I’ve always been super hard on myself. I’ve always been very driven to be the best I can.
“So, [the World Cup omission] has not been in the back of my head, all I can do is control what I can and that’s going out and playing rugby and doing it with a smile on your face has always been my best way to play.
“I’ve just loved playing with the girls. I’ve relished every opportunity I’ve got to take the field and had a slightly different mindset; I’ve just gone out for myself rather than for anyone else and I think that’s something that I can take forward.
“As I’ve got older, you kind of learn a little bit more about yourself and what’s important to you, and that’s definitely a way that I’m attacking life right now.”
Hunt has certainly enjoyed playing behind a dominant Gloucester-Hartpury pack this season.
“We’ve had this backline in place for a number of years but it’s so much easier playing rugby when you’re on the front foot,” she says. “I think the success has to go down to our forwards for that reason. They’ve given us such an amazing platform to play off.”
Taking on the Gloucester-Hartpury co-captaincy has also helped Hunt maintain her competitive edge on the pitch.
“I love to have that challenge of how you manage the game, how you try to get the best out of everyone and you keep driving everyone forward,” she says.
Having that leadership role alongside Zoe Aldcroft, meanwhile, “brings the best out of me”. “We really complement each other with how we do it. Zoe definitely chills a lot of people out,” Hunt adds. “She chills me out!”
Under the leadership of Hunt and Aldcroft, Gloucester-Hartpury are in the midst of a near perfect season – a 36-27 defeat to champions Saracens the only blot so far – and are potentially only five matches away from winning a first Premier 15s title.
Hunt deflects much of the praise for that onto a squad she says is free of ego but does not shy away from acknowledging the size of the opportunity they have created for themselves.
“We couldn’t have set ourselves up any better,” she admits. “It’s a huge opportunity for us and we’re just relishing the chance to bring something home for Gloucester.
“It’s just one of those, isn’t it? When it gets to the business end of the season, we just want to make sure that we’re playing our best rugby.”
For someone who was born and schooled in Gloucestershire, having that success with her hometown club, with family and friends watching on every week, is “super special”.
“Not just my family, but also some of my closest mates now play on the team. We’ve got such good bonds and it genuinely is one of the best places I’ve ever played,” she says.
“We’ve been on this journey for three or four years and always been a ‘nearly’ team so to be smashing it out like we are this year, it means so much.”
How would it feel to finish the job and lead the team to victory at Kingsholm next month?
“It would mean absolutely everything, especially to me,” Hunt says. “To put the cherry on the top of the cake would be everything, so we’re just hoping we get that opportunity.”
Whatever happens between now and the end of June, though, do not expect Hunt to ride off into the sunset even if Gloucester-Hartpury do scale that summit.
Listening to Hunt speak infectiously about the game, the club, and her role within it, it is easy to forget that she turned 34 in March.
By her own admission, she is playing as well as she ever has done and is “100 per cent” driven to play at a home World Cup in a little over two years. An ambition only heightened by playing in front of nearly 60,000 fans at Twickenham last month.
“I feel fitter than ever,” the RWC 2014 winner explains. “I know we all talk about age and [when] people start retiring… but you look at Sarah Hunter and I think she’s retired in her prime at 37.
“So, it’s not really a thing anymore, I think if you look after your body, you just get sharper as you get older. You learn the cheat lines, you kind of anticipate where the play’s going.
“I’ve got many rugby years behind me now, so hopefully I’m kind of at the top of my game in terms of that sort of stuff.”
Hunt adds: “While I’m enjoying it and while I’m playing all right, I’m going to keep going at it. A home World Cup is definitely a draw and would be unbelievable to be part of.
“To finish on something like that would be an incredible thing to go out on. It’s definitely firmly in my sights, shall we say?”
As this season has proved, Hunt has a knack of achieving what she sets her mind to.
Natasha Hunt was named Premier 15s Player of the Year at the Eterlast RPA Awards 2023
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Great read. Top player, even better man.Go to comments
So I’m assuming England centrally contract the women as there’s no money in the women’s game? Time they did the same in the men’sGo to comments