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Sarah Hunter: 'As England captain, I have goals I want to reach'

By Lucy Lomax
Sarah Hunter of England arrives at the stadium prior to the Autumn International match between England Red Roses and Canada Women at Twickenham Stoop on November 14, 2021 in London, England. (Photo by Henry Browne/Getty Images)

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With 130 England caps and counting, Red Rose captain Sarah Hunter has seen the England team and support around it grow in the 14 years since making her debut. Now the 36-year-old wants to see the club game develop in the same way, and believes her side’s partnership with Northampton Saints adds another piece to the larger puzzle in achieving this.

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This Saturday, Loughborough Lightning will play their first match at Franklin’s Gardens as part of a double header with Saints, in a first since the two clubs announced their partnership back in September 2021.

Currently nine of the ten Premier 15s teams are officially linked with a men’s Premiership club and Hunter believes for the time being at least, that joining forces is a great way to move a club forwards.

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“I think it does help to have that association with a Premiership side,” said the Loughborough player-coach. “Where the domestic game is at currently, we need that support of existing Premiership teams which have the infrastructure and fan base to elevate the women’s game.

“They’ve already got a natural fan base and it doesn’t have to be done the same as the men, we’re our own sport and we do things differently, however, there’s an audience and market alongside the men’s game that already exists and we’ve seen some very successful double headers such as Harlequins’ Big Game and the crowds at Sandy Park, where it really works to have that platform. It’s a really good way to grow the domestic game and our profiles which can only be a positive thing.”

Despite having experienced England and Scotland players in their ranks, as well as internationals from overseas, Loughborough struggled at the beginning of the season, languishing in eighth after the first few rounds. However, the team have managed to overcome their drop off in performance to pull themselves to sixth and within a realistic shot of the play-offs.

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“We had a pretty difficult start to the season, the nature of the fixtures we played, our first three matches were against the top three sides from last year and we had significant injuries to key players as well as having our Scotland contingent away on World Cup qualifying duty so we were pretty thin on the ground.

“It was challenging but it did galvanise us and gel us together, which is the sign of a good team and we’ve hopefully come out the other side. We’ve put a string of results together and won crucial games at crucial moments which at the start of the season we just weren’t doing.

“We’ve kept ourselves in the fight for that top four spot, we’re confident about where we’ve come but we’re under no illusions of the challenge we’re going to face, starting this week against Exeter.”

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Back in November, Lightning lost a close match to Saturday’s opposition Exeter who currently occupy fourth spot, and as Loughborough Lightning usually play their home games on the university sports campus without established stands or seating areas, it’s all to play for this Saturday in Saints’ 15,200 seater stadium, in front of a packed-out crowd.

“I had the fortunate opportunity to play at Franklin’s Gardens in the autumn with England against New Zealand and the atmosphere was brilliant, the pitch is amazing.  To be part of a double header with a side like Northampton with their history in English rugby and be in a partnership with them is exciting.

“I have a feeling it’ll be quite a close one on Saturday, two teams vying for that top four space and both on an upward curve, so it’ll hopefully be an exciting one for the neutral.”

The top tier of the women’s English league appears to be in a strong place in only its fifth season since being rebranded (with one season abandoned due to the pandemic).

England’s national side are also going from strength to strength winning 18 of their last matches, being three time back-to-back Six Nations champions and beating world champions New Zealand convincingly in two Tests over the Autumn. However, sterner tests await in the form of the World Cup this October, which Hunter admits, is never far from her mind.

“People would probably be lying if they said it wasn’t in the back of their mind, it’s a World Cup year and ultimately that’s the end goal, to perform and go to New Zealand, be the best you can be and win a World Cup.”

With such an important year ahead and younger players snapping at her heels for the starting number eight jersey, Hunter explains what goals she sets for herself in the pursuit of being a better player.

“Before a game I have goals I want to reach or focus points, so when I’m reviewing the game back from a personal point of view I can look to see if I’ve achieved what I’ve set out to achieve, and know what I’m going to work on in training the following week.

“I’ll usually break it down into three goals: One for attack, one for defence and one around the break down. Other pointers may be around using my footwork when I’m carrying to break the tackle rather than just running into people or thinking I want three dominant collisions or three turnovers, but it’s generally more technical. These sort of things allow me to know, regardless of how the team has played, what I have to improve on and review.”

With Hunter nearing the end of her playing career, the 2016 World Player of the Year has previously indicated that coaching is the path she’s looking to go down when she retires.

“Coaching makes you think differently about the game and understand why decisions are made and has grown me as a person and a player. It’s something I’m really enjoying at Loughborough but I feel like I haven’t really given it the time it deserves as my focus is still on playing. I’d really like to see where my coaching goes and when I finish playing that is probably the natural route to begin with.

“I may find that it might not work for me full time and I go down a different route, but I’d like the opportunity to see what I can do in the coaching area and where it takes me. I think I’ll stay in rugby, that’s for sure, I don’t think I could leave it after all this time!”

To buy tickets for Loughborough Lightning v Exeter Chiefs Women at Franklin’s Gardens this Saturday, please click here.

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