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Sarah Hunter, England’s indomitable No.8 and captain, was recently crowned World Rugby Women’s Player of the Year, and still struggles with the realisation that she will be able to classify herself as a professional rugby player as of January. “It is something I never thought would happen in my playing time,” Hunter says. “It is one of those things that you almost dare not dream about.”
Shortly after England’s World Cup victory in 2014, the Rugby Football Union gave full-time contracts to 20 players in preparation for the introduction of women’s sevens at the Rio Olympics.
Then, in September, the RFU became the first union to award professional contracts to 15-a-side players with the World Cup on the horizon across the Irish Sea.
'Money really isn't important'
It is difficult to overstate both the symbolic and practical importance of this measure.
Professionalism, in this context, means more than just being paid to play rugby. “The money really isn’t that important, it is more about having this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I never thought would happen,” said Hunter, an RFU development officer for the south west.
“To become a professional player in January and to concentrate all my efforts on being the best player I can be in preparation to retain that World Cup trophy in August is incredibly exciting. You know, regardless of the result in August, we have been given the best possible opportunity to perform and play in an environment where nothing could have been done differently to attain that result.”
Previously players such as centre Claire Allan, who was a member of a pro-active police robbery squad in Ealing, had to fit training and conditioning around their work commitments.
“Before it was a matter of balancing my shift work when I was a police officer and trying to get my gym sessions when I could, which was never ideal,” Allan said. “Now that we are professional, our sole focus is on being in the best possible condition come game day.”"It is exciting to think just how big it can grow."
In addition to the professional contracts, the RFU also announced that England Women would be adopting the Red Roses as a moniker and that the Women’s Premiership will be reorganised and rebranded. “To be given this identity as the Red Roses provides a real sense of purpose that can engage with fans, the media and commercial companies,” Hunter said.
“You have seen how much English women’s football has grown with the launch of their Super League and the rebranding of Lionesses. Hopefully something similar can happen in terms of women’s rugby in England.
“It is exciting to think just how big it can grow. We have already seen the impact with parents taking their young girls to rugby clubs because they have seen the Red Roses film.”
Aftermath of the 2014 World Cup
In the aftermath of the 2014 World Cup triumph, the RFU announced what seemed like an ambitious target of getting 25,000 women and girls playing regular contact rugby by 2017, an increase of 10,000 in three years. In October, it was announced that target had been surpassed a year early. "Come the World Cup we will be battle hardened if nothing else."
Not everything has turned to gold for England’s women this year. In the Six Nations, England lost the Grand-Slam decider away to France 17-12. More agony was to come five months later in the sevens at the Rio Olympics. In the bronze-medal match against Canada, a team that they had comfortably beaten in the pool stages, Team GB lost 33-10 and left Brazil empty-handed.
Team management, led by head coach Simon Middleton, conducted a thorough review and believe the lessons learnt will stand them in good stead not just for the next Olympic cycle but at the World Cup as well. “One of the key lessons from Rio was that we were just not hardened enough by playing against the best sides on a regular basis to perform at a consistently high enough level,” Middleton said.
“So this year we put in place a programme that is second to none, which means that come the World Cup we will be battle hardened if nothing else.”
'Rocky is a sensation'
That programme has included the Old Mutual Wealth Series that concludes on Saturday against Canada and has encompassed fixtures against the other top-five teams in the world. History has already been made in the series as Rochelle “Rocky” Clark overtook Jason Leonard’s record of 114 caps to become England’s most-capped player ever. Not that she is showing any signs of slowing down.
“Rocky is a sensation,” Middleton said. “Since the 2014 World Cup she has become a better player and she is still pivotal to us as a team. Her commitment to the game and England is something to behold. She is not ready to quit and we wouldn’t want her to. She is playing the rugby of her life.
"She has added facets to her game but she remains that Rocky Clark who sets the scrum on fire and leads from the front every time she is on the field.”
Pressure to deliver
This series has also marked the first time in two years that the sevens players including Allan and former captain Katy Mclean have been integrated together with 15-a-side players as a single squad. Inevitably there were a few teething problems on the field, but none in terms of the harmony of the squad. “At our first training camp, it honestly felt like the two teams had not been apart,” Hunter said. “It just felt right.”
Of course, with investment comes expectation, with promotion comes pressure to deliver. That, however, is exactly what Hunter is looking for.
“If we are going to have partners like Old Mutual Wealth investing in us and putting us on a par with the men’s team then we are going to have to perform,” Hunter said. “It is not going to go unnoticed, it is not going to go under the radar. There will be questions asked about the team performance and the individual performances.
“It is a sign for us to step up as players and meet that. It is something that we are not going to shy away from. We relish that. Big games call for big statements to be made.”
This article, written by Telegraph rugby reporter Daniel Schofield, will also appear in Saturday's matchday programme.