How Rugby World Cup redemption propelled England captain Sarah Hunter to 138 caps

Sarah Hunter captained England when they lost to New Zealand in the 2017 World Cup final
Place: Waitakere Stadium, Auckland Date: October 30, Sunday Start: 01:30 BST
Coverage: Listen to BBC Radio 5 Live; follow live text commentary on the BBC Sport website and app.

Five years ago, Sarah Hunter’s heart was broken.

Leading at half-time in the 2017 World Cup final, England dominated New Zealand after the break and the Black Ferns won the title for the fifth time.

Hunter was the captain that day and it seems that the responsibility of that defeat continues to haunt and motivate him in equal measure.

The 37-year-old’s entry into the World Cup qualifiers is not for everyone, but with the chance to take the trophy to New Zealand on home soil, it is very much for Hunter.

Easy motivation. the goal that drove him to be The most capped international player in England and women’s rugby history.

He will play his 138th England game on Sunday – surpassing the mark of 137 set by former Red Rose Rocky Clark – as he leads the side in their World Cup quarter-final against Australia.

It is a moment that would never have happened if the tournament had been organized elsewhere.

“When World Rugby announced it was going to be in New Zealand, it was too much of a carrot to hang my boots on,” Hunter explains.

“That’s why he followed me. In the toughest of times you want to challenge yourself. I don’t think there’s a much tougher prospect than coming across the world to reigning champions New Zealand and trying to win that trophy.”

England are favorites to win the title and may face New Zealand in the final.

The pain in 2017 was familiar as it was the fourth time the Black Ferns had beaten England in a World Cup final.

Hunter’s anguish over the result five years ago seemed as fresh as ever as he wept over his runner-up medal in a documentary about England’s build-up to the 2022 championships.

He told BBC Sport that the pain “wasn’t something I fully acknowledged” after the final.

“I felt as the captain I should have been able to do something in that second half,” added Hunter.

“Later I thought about it, that’s completely ridiculous. I really struggled for a long time until I started talking about it and something to help it become better, to help me overcome it and understand that it was irrational behavior.”

“Standed out of the ordinary”

A young Sarah Hunter in rugby gear
As a child, Hunter played rugby league for the Gateshead Panthers

The sting of 2017 was even more bitter, as rugby has been a source of joy for Hunter since picking up a ball at the age of nine.

He still remembers the freedom to “run around breaking things” in his elementary school playground.

A Rugby League coach came to a North Tyneside school to run sessions for the boys. The headmaster said he would offer it to the girls too or there would be no rugby.

So Hunter, already deeply involved in the street cricket and football scene on his road, had the chance to try something new.

League was her first love, but when mixed rugby ended at the age of 12 there weren’t enough girls to form a team, so she had to switch to union.

That’s how he met Novocastrians coach Graeme Cooper, with whom he is still close.

“Every once in a while as a coach you get a talent that crosses your path, where there’s something that stands out from the crowd,” Cooper says. — That was Sarah.

The profile of women’s rugby was much lower then, with Hunter not knowing the England team until she was 16.

He tried the under-19s first. Playing in the middle, Hunter was told that there was already too much power in his position and that the back row could provide a better option.

Hunter returned with a to-do list for Cooper and trained with the Novocastrians men as he tried to get his head around the new position.

“We started what can best be described as a steep learning curve, driven by him and his thirst to be as good as he could be,” Cooper recalls.

The challenge was accepted and overcome; Hunter made it to England under-19s.

In 2007, as he revised for the university exams, his first call to the senior side came. Hunter came off the bench for the Six Nations and would go on to win the first of 10 caps in that tournament.

A few years later he played in his first World Cup, losing the final to New Zealand.

In 2014, England made amends and Hunter says “the hairs on the back of his neck stand up” when he thinks back to the moment they were crowned world champions that year.

After that victory he became England captain and was named the World Rugby Player of the Year in 2016.

A photo and words by Sarah Hunter: 138 - Sarah Hunter will win more caps than any other England or women's international.

“I want to make history with this team”

Having achieved all you can in the sport, there are many times when Hunter could have stopped playing. Recently, when a mysterious neck injury left him unable to tie shoelaces.

He “definitely” admits that international rugby gets harder as you get older.

When you talk to people about Hunter, a few words come up frequently: attention, professionalism, presence.

There are some less expected descriptions. He is seemingly clumsy and rarely misses an opportunity to have his mother Janet do the cleaning, even during a World Cup.

A word that is used almost without fail: driven.

Something has always driven Hunter to be a better version of himself in rugby. Right now, at the World Cup in New Zealand, there is no shortage of motivation.

“I loved playing in England, every game,” he says.

“I could probably count every game I’ve played in. I want to be the best player and the best teammate in this amazing team.

“I want to make history with this team and I think only time will tell if that can happen.”