NEWCASTLE’S Sarah Hunter has set her sights on captaining England’s Women’s team to a series win over world champions New Zealand tonight.
The 27-year-old back-rower scored one of England’s two tries in Friday’s 16-13 victory over the Black Ferns in the first of their three-test programme, one which comes to a head at Twickenham on Saturday immediately following the men’s encounter.
This evening’s second test in Aldershot could secure the series by then and tee up a clean sweep, with Hunter among one of only six players retained in the XV from their opener at Esher.
“With it being the first test against the world champions it was always going to be real hard, physical challenge,” said Hunter, who now plays for Lichfield after moving away from the North East for university.
“We tried to play a lot of open rugby which didn’t go the way we wanted, and there were too many errors which led to them taking a ten-point lead.
“Our spirit, character and continuing to play the way we want to play really showed in the way we came back to win, especially when you consider all the changes forced upon us by injuries. The combinations we had on the field were not something we had especially thought of pre-match, and we were really proud of the result.”
Modestly putting her own try down to “a lot of really good work from the pack,” Hunter’s ascension to captain continues a growing tradition of North East skippers for the World Cup finalists, who did not concede a single try during this year’s emphatic Grand Slam.
South Shields’ Katy McLean is the regular captain, with the Darlington Mowden Sharks’ fly-half on the bench this evening as the home side employ their rotation strategy.
“To play for your country is massive in itself, but to captain them is truly a proud moment against a top side like New Zealand,” said Hunter, who has already skippered the English to victory over France this month and converted to union from the 13-man code.
“I started playing at what is now called Benton Dene Primary School when I was nine, although I played rugby league to begin with for Gateshead Panthers.
“My first rugby union experience was playing for a North East regional side designed for girls aged around 15, and from there I went on to play for Novocastrians. I moved away for university and now work for the RFU as a rugby development officer in the south west of the country, but my family are all in the North East and I still think of it as home.”
Insisting the health of the women’s game in the region is strong, she added: “There is a lot of strength in depth in terms of talent that the North East is producing at the moment, and people are really striving up there to achieve that.
“Having Darlington Mowden Park in the Premiership and then lots of other clubs beneath that ensures people are getting the opportunity, and it was nice for Katy McLean and myself to be captain and vice-captain for what it means for the region. We have played alongside each other since we were 16 years old at Novos and we go back a long way, so it was special to help her lead the national team.”
With the long-term target of the World Cup in Paris being two years away Hunter is looking no further than this evening’s challenge, stating: “New Zealand are the benchmark in women’s rugby, as I guess they are in any form of the game. Everyone wants to beat the world champions, they are a fantastic team and they are natural born rugby players. These are the games we want, and we just can’t wait for these next two games.”
Voicing no concerns about the prospect of playing two internationals inside four days, she added: “We are well looked after by the coaches, and the recovery is such these days that it isn’t a problem playing the two in a row. The selection for tonight has kept everything fresh, and the number of changes we have been able to make just demonstrates the strength of the English game at the moment.
“The squad tonight will be as strong as the one we had on Friday, and it has to be positive for us to have that level of competition and ability. Five or six years ago we had a 15 that we stuck with pretty much the whole time, but it is a squad game now and we have plenty to choose from.”
No game against New Zealand would be complete without the Haka, and the women’s team, too, have their own version. Hunter said: “They do a version of the Haka, but we have seen it a few times now and we know how to cope with it.
“You watch it and respect its tradition, but the main thing is the game and you just have to zone out and stay in your focus after the anthems. We have our own brief time afterwards to get our thoughts together, but facing down the Haka is a wonderful experience.”