Women’s rugby continues to progress as Red Roses complete remarkable year

England hooker Amy Garnett throws in against New Zealand

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Amy Garnett, the former Saracens and England hooker, beams with pride as she tells a story about how she was invited to a dinner at the House of Commons a few years ago.

“It was an event for rugby centurions,” says Garnett who in 2011 became the first woman to reach 100 Test caps for England. “So there I was with George Gregan and John Smit, having a wonderful time, only for these guests, I don’t know who they were, to mistake me for a waitress.” 

Garnett cringes at the memory. “It was mortifying,” she says. “The guys were great actually. George Gregan was all like ‘Don’t you know who she is?’ And we went to the bar afterwards and chewed each others’ ears off about rugby, which was lovely. I didn’t even know they knew who I was but they’d obviously done their homework. 

“But it just shows the disparity that exists between the men’s and women’s games. I don’t think Dan Carter would ever be mistaken for a waiter. Thankfully times are changing.”

Not quickly enough, some might say. Sunday’s BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year show did not cover itself in glory when it came to women’s rugby. Of course, it’s not easy to pack an entire year’s worth of sport into a couple of hours. But even by Spoty standards, the fact that women’s rugby union this year was dealt with in roughly 20 seconds, after the men had been given a long montage, felt incredibly insulting. Not least because there was a joint montage for rugby league straight afterwards. And not least because the Red Roses were arguably the team of the year across all British sport. 

Unlike England’s male footballers, whose coach won the coach’s award, the Red Roses actually won something this year; back-to-back wins over world champions New Zealand no less. Those victories last month capped an incredible body of work. In total, Simon Middleton’s team scored 57 tries and conceded just 10 in 2021, as they went a second successive year unbeaten, extending their run of wins in all competitions to 18.

England outplayed New Zealand in the autumn

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Sarah Hunter, England’s women’s captain, shrugs. While Garnett, now a coach at Exeter Chiefs women, admits it “p—– her off” the Red Roses are afforded such little attention by awards shows such as Spoty, Hunter sees the fact that the snub has created any outrage at all as a sign of progress. “Probably five or six years ago we wouldn’t even have been having this conversation,” she says. “So now people are asking that question, that’s progress. In any case, as players we don’t set out for those sorts of things. We’re so focused on what we want to achieve, how we perform and so on. That means far more than whether you get an accolade.”

Hunter’s attitude is at least partly informed by the fact we are speaking at an event run by The Rugby Centurions Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation established in 2017 that celebrates those players who have won 100 International Test Caps or more for their country. Hunter says the equal treatment afforded to men and women is another sign of progress. She expresses sympathy for Garnett when she tells her story about being mistaken for a waitress, or having to write to the RFU to ask them to send her her 100th cap as they did not recognise women back then (she only received it two years later), but says she believes that on the whole there are more reasons to be positive than negative. 

“It makes me sad to hear about Amy’s experiences, but mine have been very different,” Hunter says. “We [England Women] were fully part of the RFU by the time I got my 100th cap for instance. They obviously made a bit more of a thing of it by then. I was given a really special occasion at The Stoop. And the direction of travel since then has been one way, with more investment, more recognition and higher standards across the board.”

In England at least. While Middleton’s team continue to go from strength to strength, buoyed by the RFU’s funding and the success of Premier15s. Other home unions are yet to make the same quantum leap. The Welsh union came in for criticism recently when it dressed up news that from January it would be putting 10 players on full-time contracts as a “momentous” step. 

“You have to start somewhere,” Hunter says, diplomatically. “Knowing the ins and outs of what their contracts are like, it’s probably not really very fair to comment. But at least they’re doing it. Other nations need to follow and do likewise. And then it’s about going on and doing more.”

As far as England are concerned, Hunter could not be happier with where they are heading into a World Cup year. 

England’s winning run has clearly bred huge confidence although Hunter is insistent other nations will raise their game by the time they get to New Zealand next autumn. “We have our feet firmly on the ground,” she says. “There’s still a year to go and a lot of rugby to be played. There’s no doubt that New Zealand will be a different team. They’ll probably have a lot of their 7s players back. They’ll have had a whole year of domestic competition. Plus they’ll be at home, which will be massive.

“Canada and the USA, too. And we haven’t played France for the first time in God knows how long. But we’ll face them in the Six Nations next year. But the exciting thing is thinking where this team can go on its journey. We have so much talent coming through.”

Hunter, who with 130 caps is fast closing in on Rocky Clark’s all-time caps record of 137, admits she faces arguably the biggest challenge of her career just making England’s starting XV. 

The 36-year-old was used in an uncustomary role from the bench in the autumn, but says she is confident that was just a temporary tactic. “Simon explained the rationale behind it,” she says. “You can’t just rely on one or two people being able to lead you through a World Cup year. Strength in depth will be paramount. Having players like Alex [Matthews] coming back from 7s, Harriet [Millar-Mills]’s been out, you’ve got Sadia Kabeya coming in, and Marlie [Packer] didn’t play in the last game either. It just shows you the standard.

“And I want them all to succeed. We need more players, more leaders on the pitch. And if I can help them to become the best leaders they can be, which helps England be the best team they can be, then I guess now that is part of my job as a leader and a captain as well. 

“But I’m not happy being a finisher,” she adds, quickly. “I want my starting spot back.”

Hunter smiles. The very fact that we’re talking about selection of the England women’s team heading to a World Cup is in itself a sign of progress. “We’ve got people judging us for our rugby now,” she notes. “Fans and pundits picking their strongest starting line-ups, debating who should be in or out, as they would for the men. That’s all we’ve ever wanted.”

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