Home » Tears and tributes as Hunter enjoys ‘perfect ending’

Tears and tributes as Hunter enjoys ‘perfect ending’

As Sarah Hunter left the Kingston Park pitch with a tearful smile, an era of English rugby ended.

It was one that began when she first picked up a ball to try out rugby league aged nine.

The North Shields-born number eight fell in love with it, but was forced to switch codes because of a lack of other girls playing at her age.

Hunter then fell into the sport in which she would become an England legend.

At one time, she sold programmes at Kingston Park to watch her beloved Newcastle Falcons play.

On Saturday, the 37-year-old was front and centre on those programmes and the most frequent recipient of the home crowd’s adoring screams in the 58-7 win over Scotland in the Women’s Six Nations.

Having made her 141st appearance, Hunter finished as England’s most-capped player – male or female – and the most-capped women’s international in the world.

The journey took her from amateur to professional, via one World Cup win and 10 Six Nations titles.

The titles matter, but it is her part in the exponential growth of women’s rugby that makes Hunter particularly proud.

“We want to win tournaments but sport is more than that, especially with where women’s sport is now,” she said.

“It’s about the legacy we want to leave and how, as individuals, we can drive that to inspire that next generation.

“We’ve just scratched the surface of the women’s game. I’ll hand the baton on to this group of Red Roses, then they’ll have a responsibility to move the game forward.”

England head coach Simon Middleton described Hunter as “the face of the Red Roses for the last 10 years”.

“Because she’s been such an incredible leader and diplomat for the game, we shouldn’t forget what an unbelievable player she’s been,” he added.

“She never trains or plays poorly. She gives everything she’s got to every session and everything she does.

“She is England’s greatest player, without a shadow of a doubt. Men’s, women’s, I can’t see how anyone can say there has been a better player.”

For the most part, Hunter has done it all with a smile on her face and kindness for anyone she encounters.

That kindness was repaid in Newcastle. Hunter was able to finish her career in her home city – the stands packed with family members and nine-year-old niece Isabella escorting her onto the pitch.

There were tears before the match, then when she left the field, and during the many post-match interviews that followed.

Not just from Hunter, but all those in the game that have grown to love and respect her.

There were ear-piercing screams when she took to the field and a standing ovation when she left.

Hunter left the field to a standing ovation in the 57th minute

As ever, Hunter remained her authentic, thoughtful self.

There was a laugh shared with Loughborough team-mate Rachel Malcolm after the Scotland captain put in a particularly heavy tackle on her England counterpart.

There was a reassuring hand on the shoulder of scrum-half Lucy Packer – 14 years her junior and making her first foray into a game that looks so different to when Hunter started.

Her first cap, also won against Scotland, came in front of a few hundred people, mostly family and friends, she said.

Fittingly, this last one was at a sold-out Kingston Park as England – professional for four years now – showed just how far investment can take you as they battered newly-contracted Scotland in search of a fifth successive Women’s Six Nations title.

When she did leave the field, Hunter refused to be in the spotlight alone.

Hugging Marlie Packer, who will now take on the captaincy, Hunter showed her appreciation for the crowd as mum Janet watched on in tears.

“I wanted to make sure I thanked people for coming,” she said of the moment on BBC Two.

“I just wanted to bottle it, savour the moment you’ll never get again. This crowd was insane tonight. It was just to show that I’ve seen them and I recognise them.”

Looking around the ground, it seemed there were enough tears to fill the River Tyne – and Middleton admitted one or two escaped his eyes too.

“Anyone who has been in here today is quite privileged to have been at one of the iconic moments in sport,” he said of Hunter’s pitch exit.

Team-mate and fellow World Cup-winner Emily Scarratt said the crowd’s response “will stay with me for a very long time”.

“I’m feeling emotional,” Scarratt added on BBC Two.

“She played so well too. She got a turnover before she came off and carried the ball well. It is an amazing way to go out still being that good at your craft. She is an absolute professional how she goes about her work.”

Although Hunter missed out on a second World Cup win with England after narrowly losing the final to New Zealand in November, the result against Scotland meant she finished at the top of her game.

She returned to the pitch after the final whistle and was presented with roses, before being hoisted onto the shoulders of front row players Sarah Bern and Amy Cokayne and carried across the field.

Reflecting on her record-breaking career, Hunter joked she “just wanted to get a second cap” and not be “a one-cap wonder”.

“To finish on your terms, not many people get to do it and I’ve done it the best way I could have imagined,” Hunter added.

“I’ve played in a brilliant game with a brilliant team in my home city where it all began. It is the perfect ending to the career that I’ve had.”