TWELVE years and more than 100 games ago Sarah Hunter made her debut for England Women in front of a few hundred hardy souls at Old Albanians in Hertfordshire.
The landscape of women’s rugby was primitive at best, the skillset and athleticism on display admirable but below what can be expected of international sport.
Fast forward to the present day and Hunter represented England for a 110th time yesterday in front of 4,674 fans at Castle Park as her Red Roses took a huge step towards winning the Women’s Six Nations for a record-extending 10th time.
It was a day to celebrate growth across the board; in the development of the women’s game, the evolution of the England team and the rise of Doncaster RUFC as a venue for hosting top-class international sport.
That France, the third best team on the planet and reigning Six Nations champions were vanquished in such swashbuckling style merely added to the sense of progress.
“Women’s rugby is unrecognisable from when I first started and that’s credit to all the work that has gone in from all the unions across the world in growing the game,” said back-row forward Hunter.
“I got my first cap in front of a few hundred people at Old Albanians. It was a great occasion but look at where we are now, television coverage of all Six Nations fixtures, the growing crowds.
“The level the game is played at, too, the skill level, the intensity, really is unrecognisable.
“Back then I thought I was fit, you thought the skillset was good. But I never used to jump in a lineout because we didn’t have that knowledge or ability.”
Women’s rugby has been swept along in society’s equality movement but there are internal factors which have seen its acceleration. At local level, there are 17 clubs that cater for women and girls in a 30-mile radius of Castle Park, while at the top of the game, the Rugby Football Union has increased professionalism by handing out full-time contracts to 28 players and generated interest by taking games on the road.
Women’s rugby is unrecognisable from when I first started and that’s credit to all the work that has gone in from all the unions across the world in growing the game.England’s Sarah Hunter
This was the second time England have played at Castle Park in three months, and the fact that an attendance of 3,876 back in November was improved upon by almost 800 suggests a new fanbase is growing in Yorkshire.
“Even at the warm-up you could feel that buzz as the crowd was growing,” said Hunter, who is used to playing most home internationals in a nearly-empty Twickenham after the men have finished.
“And then when you come out into a full ground and there’s that sense of togetherness, that’s fantastic. You’ve got flags flying throughout the ground, ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ being sung, it’s a great place to come.
“And because it’s quite compact it felt like they were living every moment with us.
“It’s important to have that feeling coming to places like this that you have this real spectator base that is there for us.”
For proud Yorkshireman Middleton, one of the more pleasing aspects was producing a performance that could inspire future generations.
“It was vitally important that we progressed on the field as well as off the field,” said the former dual-code player.
“Women’s rugby is on an upward trajectory and we’ve got to make sure we seize the moment and keep it going.
“Momentum is created by putting nearly 1,000 people on the gate. And for me the most pleasing thing is we put on a performance that will have hopefully inspired.”
That they did in the first-half, scoring 24 unanswered points against a French team whose preference for running instead of kicking their way out of trouble kept them penned in their own half.
Jess Breach got the first after a fine cross-kick from Katy Daley-McLean and then Poppy Cleall barrelled over after another fine kick from Emily Scarrett put France on the back foot.
Yet another Scarrett kick sent winger Kelly Smith tearing over and Breach got her second after backing up Sarah McKenna on the stroke of half-time, the latter two coming when England had a player in the sin-bin.
France scored two of the first three tries to start the second half, firstly through Safi N’Diaye and then a brilliant dummy by scrum-half Pauline Bourdon.
But a second from flanker Cleall sandwiched in between quashed any French hopes of a comeback. Further scores from forwards Hannah Botterman and Catherine O’Donnell eased England to victory before Bourdon added her second and Romane Menager scored a fourth try for France to give the scoreboard a little more respectability from their perspective.
England: McKenna, Breach, Scarratt, Heard, Smith, Daley-McLean, Riley; Cornborough, Davies, Bern, O’Donnell, Scott, Cleall, Leitch, Hunter. Replacements: Cokayne, Botterman, Brown, Burnfield, Beckett, Hunt, Harrison, Scott.
France: Boujard, Jason, M Menager, Vernier, Murie, Imart, Bourdon; Arricastre, Thomas, Joueux, Corson, N’Diaye, Hermet, Ferer, R Menager. Replacements: Scohat, Traore, Argagnon, Forlani, Diallo, Rivoalen, Lissar, Constanty.