Red Roses are only 'scratching the surface' of what's to come for women's rugby
Sarah Hunter has had the rather strange experience of starting the Women’s Six Nations a player, and ending it a pundit.
The rugby legend picked up 141 caps during her inspiring journey with the Red Roses.
Hunter retired following the squad’s opening Six Nations match against Scotland, and was hoisted onto her teammates shoulders and given a hero’s farewell.
The former captain has watched the remainder of the tournament unfold from the side-lines, appearing as a broadcaster to analyse each match.
Today, the Women’s Six Nations will come to a close as England take on France in the grand slam decider.
For Hunter, it marks the start of a new chapter for the women’s game.
The 37-year-old told Metro.co.uk: ‘When I made the decision to retire, I think people thought it was a bit of an odd time to do it at the start of the Championship.
‘It was certainly very different. But for me it’s never been about having a huge occasion around something – like ending things today at Twickenham would be – but about it being personal.
‘It was really special to play my final match in my home city of Newcastle, and to be able to call time on the most amazing career and journey I’ve been so lucky to have. It just felt like the right moment.
‘That moment of being able to walk out with my niece felt really special, back when I was younger I used to sell programmes there.
‘Since the Scotland game I’ve been taking a different route through the rest of the Six Nations and I’ve been lucky enough to be in some of the broadcasting teams watching things from the other side.’
Women’s rugby has exploded in popularity in recent years, in part due to the trailblazing work of players like Hunter.
The former player is keeping a watchful eye on her former teammates, but says they stand in good stead both on and off the pitch ahead of the World Cup.
Hunter has seen the England side transform from an amateur to a professional team, and been among the loudest voices calling for change.
She’s confident that voice will continue to ring out across the world of rugby.
‘When I was growing up, I didn’t even know there was an England Women’s team until I was 16,’ Hunter continued.
‘They weren’t on TV, we didn’t have social media in the same way.
‘I didn’t have female players to look up to, I played because I loved the game.
‘I was inspired by male players I did see, the likes of Andy Farrell, Shaun Edwards, Jason Robinson.
‘I started in rugby league then moved to rugby union, and looked and learned from players like Richard Hill.
‘Now it’s great to see that both boys and girls can switch on their TV and see female role models on the pitch. It’s something I wish I’d had.’
Today, the broadcast audience for the 2023 TikTok Women’s Six Nations is up 28% on the previous years Championship.
A rise of new, often younger, fans can also be seen online – with a 41% increase of followers of Women’s Six Nations social media channels and 339 million views of this year’s content – up 187% from last year.
But there’s still a long way to go.
Earlier this month, Ireland’s Women’s team hit headlines after a ‘prominent figure’ in Irish rugby allegedly mused ‘who gives a f*** about women’s rugby’ at a dinner.
The criticism snowballed into an unofficial campaign by fans, who started sharing content with a #IGiveAF*** hashtag.
Moving forward, Hunter says investment is key to help write the new chapter of women’s rugby.
She said: ‘We always need to continue to invest in the grassroots end of the game, it’s what makes great international players.
‘It’s changed dramatically, especially in England, but more investment of that is needed to make it easier for young girls to get into and stay in the sport.
‘We need to invest in facilities as a whole, help get coaches and referees qualified and target every age group.
‘At a domestic level, worldwide, I’d like to see that in the rest of the game.
‘In England we ae really lucky to play in the Premier 15s which is a fantastic competition, which is due to get more investment in the next ten years.
‘But if we want to develop women’s rugby as a whole then that needs to be replicated worldwide.’
Hunter added: ‘Women’s rugby has come so far but I feel we are scratching the surface of where it can go. That’s the really exciting part, thinking what will happen over the years if people keep going “we back you, we want to support you”‘
‘I have no doubt over the coming years we will see that and close the gap and that will make all the games more competitive.’
While Hunter’s voice may be gone from the changing room, she’s assured the squad will work hard to drive further change.
Younger players are ‘aware’ of the responsibilities they hold in inspiring others.
Jess Breach recently spoke to Metro.co.uk about her thoughts for the future of the Women’s Six Nations and the impact of seeing her name emblazoned on the back of fan’s shirts.
And the squad’s new captain, Marlie Packer, has been described as ‘amazing’ by her predecessor.
Hunter said: ‘The average age since I left is quite young now! It’s brilliant to know there’s an amazing group of girls left and what an inspiring bunch they are.
‘It made retiring easier knowing I was leaving athletes who are fantastic both on and off the pitch and will continue to push the game on and inspire that next generation.
‘Anyone who is part of the Red Roses knows that yes, we want to win tournaments and championships, but what also drives us is that inspiration and legacy left behind.
Great to be on @BBCSport comms for the #RedRoses game against Wales today. Another win for the girls ð#TikTokW6N pic.twitter.com/2Qg2tdbTL5
‘Players coming into the squad know they have a responsibility to do that.’
The Women’s Six Nations will come to a close today, as England take on France in a match dubbed ‘Le Crunch’.
Thousands will watch the drama unfold and, at half time, be treated to a performance by the Sugababes.
For Hunter, the key word looking forward is simply ‘excited’.
She added: ‘If you’d told me ten years ago the Sugababes would be playing at half time at a record-breaking standalone game at Twickenham, I’d have thought you were joking.
‘That’s what is fantastic about the women’s game, it’s really family orientated and about putting on a real event.
‘The sport sells it, but the added addition of the performance gives the fan the complete package.
‘It’s been a compelling Six Nations and it’s all going to cumulate today at Twickenham in front of a World Record crowd. It doesn’t get much better than that.’
Keep your eyes peeled for some new silverware today…
Set to be revealed during the final round of the 2023 TikTok Women’s Six Nations, a brand-new Trophy for the Women’s Championship has been created.
It will be unveiled at Twickenham today (April 29) in front of a record-breaking crowd, where the first team to have its name engraved on the new piece of silverware will be decided.
Sarah Hunter will also be helping usher in the new Trophy; introducing it to the fans in the stadium and those watching on television, before the winning
team claims the prestigious Women’s Six Nations title.
Taking over 250 craft-hours to create and standing at 25 inches tall, the new Trophy has been made by hand using silver and gold plate. In keeping with the ambitions of Six Nations Rugby to create the best possible platform for the Women’s Championship to flourish, the new Trophy reflects the challenger mindset of the Women’s Six Nations; not bound by tradition and prepared to do things differently to support the growth of the game.
As such, more traditional Cup designs have made way for a modern silhouette of Trophy, characterised by six arms reaching upwards, with each crest of the six competing nations engraved towards the top of the Trophy.
Julie Paterson, director of rugby at Six Nations Rugby, said: ‘There is a collective ambition from everyone at Six Nations Rugby, alongside our Unions
and Federations, to deliver sustainable growth of the women’s game, built on strong foundations, and play our part in raising the game for women’s sport in general.
‘The 2023 Championship has once again shown that elite women’s rugby delivers high class sporting entertainment, and fans have responded with sell-out crowds, creating an incredible atmosphere at games, and by flooding social feeds to engage with the Championship, the teams, and their players.
‘The introduction of a new bespoke Trophy for the Women’s Six Nations reflects the exciting journey Six Nations Rugby is on. Women’s rugby is a relatively young sport, and we are entering a transformational period for the game as we lead into the World Cup in 2025.’
READ MORE: ‘We want to keep winning’ Red Roses star speaks as they prepare for record-breaking crowd
READ MORE: Rugby star Nolli Waterman will ‘never settle’ until women’s game given respect it deserves
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