Rugby World Cup columnist @katymc10
Sarah Hunter deserves to erase previous heartache with World Cup glory as England captain, says Katy Daley-Mclean
Sarah Hunter was an exceptional talent aged 14 and has reinvented her game over the years to fight off stiff competition for her England spot as 37-year-old prepares for historic cap No 138 against Australia in Sunday's World Cup quarter-final, writes Katy Daley-McLean
Last Updated: 28/10/22 7:40pm
When it comes to what it takes to be a Red Rose, the qualities and attributes you need, Sarah Hunter ticks every single box and then some.
The focus will be on Sarah again this week as England prepare for their World Cup quarter-final against Australia as she becomes the country's most-capped player with her 138th appearance - and rightly so.
I've known Sarah since we were both 14 and, over 20 years later, she hasn't really changed a bit. She still plays with the same immense work ethic she did all those years ago and is just an amazing person, very grounded, gets on with her job and looks out for others. I couldn't think of a more deserving and hardworking person to take this mantle from Rochelle Clark.
I first met her when we played rugby league as teenagers for Gateshead U14s. We then faced each other many times at county level - when she would play for Northumberland and I for Durham. When we were around 17 years old, we came back together again for our north east regional side and our careers ran almost parallel from then on until my retirement, since which she has continued her status at the absolute top of the game.
I certainly remember playing against her in our younger days, Sarah was much taller than many girls of our age. She was an amazing ball-carrier - still is - and you were definitely aware of her presence and ability when you played against her. She had that infectious smile she wears on and off the pitch now back in those days too and was just a great person to be around.
Sarah and I would go on to make our Test debuts against Scotland in the opening Six Nations clash in 2007 and then, seven years later, we won the World Cup playing alongside each other. I always look back on that 2014 success and think how fortunate I was as captain that Sarah was my vice-captain - I certainly could not have done that without her. She was so focused on supporting me, probably at the expense of herself, and is why she's gone on to become the most capped England captain.
For me, that's just one of the reasons why she deserves to lift that trophy in a few weeks' time. It would be the perfect recognition for not only what she's achieved in the game, but for all of her hard work and the selfless individual that she is in a team sport.
It can be lonely being a captain, but to know Sarah was always there for me and had my back throughout the build-up to the 2014 World Cup and right through to lifting the trophy was amazing. There's a photo of myself locking arms with Sarah on the pitch after our win over Canada in the final and, as the saying goes, if a picture paints a thousand words, it perfectly sums up what we were feeling in that moment.
As fly-half, I was always in the middle of everything, but there were also experienced players around me such as Tamara Taylor, Amber Reed, and Rachael Burford who supported Sarah and I in leading. Sarah would go on to succeed me as England captain, and has been great at utilising the experienced players around her such as Emily Scarratt, Abbie Ward and Natasha Hunt. Sarah would be the first to recognise that she has developed with experience and is more comfortable in the type of captain she has become.
Now, when you watch her, you see how she leads and how at ease she is with what she needs to do. While working with her leadership team and those around her, she plays to her strengths in the captaincy role and it is hard to imagine how anyone could do it better.
Sarah has also had to withstand the changes in the game over the last few years including making the transition from amateur to professional. You have to keep reinventing yourself and Sarah has definitely done that with the way England have wanted to play and the competition for that No 8 shirt. It's certainly not that Sarah has been untouchable, she's fought off challenges from a lot of talented players, Poppy Cleall being one of them, yet she'd still be one of the first names on Simon Middleton's team sheet.
Of course like any player who was playing in those amateur days, there were sacrifices to make along the way. Those were the choices you made for elite sport and playing for your country while working full-time. Whether that is the weddings and christenings you miss because you're always playing at weekends, having to respond with 'I'd love to but I've got rugby commitments' to most invitations, or asking your family to plan major events around your England calendar.
That's the beauty of when Sarah achieves that record cap, she's played and led in both eras, through the amateur days of playing alongside working and then making the move across to a fully professional era. The way Sarah has adapted to those changes and continued to thrive, again is just a credit to her and the person she is.
There's no question that Sarah is still fuelled by the heartache of losing the 2017 World Cup final to the Black Ferns where we led 17-5 towards the end of the first half, only to suffer a crushing 41-32 defeat. She puts a lot of blame on herself for that loss in Belfast, and that is what keeps the firing burning as she looks to put those wrongs right in New Zealand. England have an incredibly strong chance of lifting that trophy on November 12 and, if they do so, Sarah Hunter will finally have the 'World Cup winning captain' mantle she so richly deserves.
England play Australia in their Rugby World Cup quarter-final on Sunday morning at 1.30am