Sarah Hunter: England captain's road to being World Rugby's women's player of 2016

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World award 'doesn't feel right' - Hunter

"I thought I was in trouble at first, when I found out. I thought 'what have I done wrong?'"

That was England captain Sarah Hunter's reaction when she was pulled aside in training. In fact, she was about to be told she had been shortlisted for World Rugby's women's player of the year award.

A week later, the Bristol number eight had been officially crowned the world's best for 2016 - some feat for a player whose childhood sporting opportunities were initially limited by a lack of female opponents in rugby league.

Now Hunter - a modest, team-minded individual - is hoping for further success in 2017 when England defend their World Cup title in Ireland.

"It's fantastic to get the award and recognition, but it doesn't really sit very comfortably with me," the 31-year-old told BBC Sport.

"Ever since I started playing, I've played because I love the game - it's not been about striving for individual glory. It's the ultimate team sport and it is not about personal success."

But what has made Hunter stand out from the rest?

"She's humble and it is her incredible work ethic that has allowed her to be where she is today," said Bristol Ladies head coach Roy Davies.

"She does all the simple things really well and the younger girls really look up to her and remark on how much time she takes to make them feel welcome."

Sarah Hunter (centre, right)
Hunter (centre, right) has been ever-present for England in 2016

But this star of the women's 15-a-side game almost had her career cut short before it had even started - but for an enforced, schoolgirl-age switch from rugby league.

"I started playing at primary school when I was nine, in PE lessons. I carried on playing rugby league at Gateshead Panthers," explained Tyneside-born Hunter. "I was a massive Wigan fan.

"I played mixed and full-contact, right from the beginning up until the age of 12. But that's when there was the regulation to say that girls couldn't play with the boys any more.

"So we tried to set up our own girls' rugby league team - it picked up a little bit but not enough to take off because there weren't really the numbers to push rugby league on any further in Newcastle.

"Then our development officer said 'why don't you go and try rugby union?' So, at 15, I moved into union.

"I hadn't really got a clue what I was doing at first - I was holding onto the ball when I should have been releasing, but I still enjoyed it.

England women's 2016 autumn international series results
9 Nov: Beat France 10-5 (h)19 Nov: Lost 20-25 to New Zealand (h)
13 Nov: Beat Ireland 12-10 (a)26 Nov: Beat Canada 39-6 (h)

"My hero in rugby, since I moved to union, was Richard Hill. He was the ultimate team player in my eyes, he did a lot of the unseen work.

"I thought 'if I can be half as good as him, I'll be a fairly all right player'."

And former England and Saracens flanker Hill, capped 71 times by his country and now part of the men's national team coaching setup as team manager, recently had a surprise for Hunter.

"I didn't get to go to my awards ceremony as we were in Ireland," she said. "Then, when we got back, [England men's head coach] Eddie Jones and Richard Hill came to do our shirt presentation before the New Zealand game.

"Then Richard went to get something and he presented me with my trophy. That was a really special moment for me, for him to give his time up to do that.

"Having your ultimate rugby hero present you with such an award was better than actually going to the award ceremony in my eyes."

'You can't retain it - you have to go and win it'

Sarah Hunter (right) with Eddie Jones
Hunter with England men's national team boss Eddie Jones

While the England men's side have won 13 games in a row since Jones' arrival as head coach, this year has been a solid one for England's women too, culminating in a convincing 39-6 win over Canada on Saturday.

"In the autumn series, we had the girls from the Olympic programme (rugby sevens) come back in to play 15-a-side rugby, which was a big boost," continued Hunter.

"Looking back, this season has really set us up for next year, because the biggest ambition is the World Cup.

"We spoke about retaining it, but Eddie Jones made a good point: 'You can't go and retain it - you have to go and win it', because there will be 11 other teams that want to win the trophy as well.

"That was really smart - it's just a slight difference. For me, that would be the ultimate, going and winning back-to-back World Cups.

"Just getting into the squad, which is very competitive, will be the first stage."


BBC Sport & Radio 5 Live commentator Sara Orchard:

"Sarah epitomises the England squad that rose to glory at the 2014 World Cup.

"She is arguably the best number eight in the world right now, with her technique and sheer work rate putting her ahead of her rivals.

"In particular her control of the ball at the base of the scrum is one of the best I've seen in both the men's and women's game."

Sarah Hunter (centre, right)
Sarah Hunter is looking to help Bristol Ladies win their first ever Premiership title

Top of the league

As well as success at international level, Hunter's club side, Bristol, are enjoying a superb start to the 2016-17 season and are top of the Women's Premiership.

After seven wins from their first eight league games this term, Bristol are three points clear of Hunter's old club Lichfield, who are second.

"Our goal is to get into the top four and we want to win the Premiership, but we've got to get into the play-offs first," said Hunter, who previously spent 11 seasons with Lichfield.

Davies added: "We have a super-talented group. The players have really bought into what we're doing.

"I'm absolutely delighted with how much effort they've been putting in. We've exceeded our expectations already."

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