"A Hard Taskmaster" - Sarah Hunter: Red Roses Legend Tackling New Challenge As England Defence Coach - Ruck

“A Hard Taskmaster” – Sarah Hunter: Red Roses Legend Tackling New Challenge As England Defence Coach

The most-capped England rugby player of all time, Sarah Hunter has remained solidly amongst the Red Roses after her on-field retirement. The legendary lock hung up her boots following the opening match of the 2023 Women’s Six Nations, as England handed Scotland a resounding defeat in Hunter’s native North East.

The South Shields original felt it was only fitting to end her playing career at Newcastle’s Kingston Park, before she then watched on as England secured the Grand Slam in front of a record setting Twickenham crowd. Despite stepping away from the England women set-up in a playing capacity, it was not too long before the 141-capped Red Rose returned to the RFU.

Sarah Hunter, Captain of England Women arrives for the TikTok Womens Six Nations match between England Women and Wales Women at Kingsholm Stadium on April 9 2022 in Gloucester, England. (Photo by Tom Sandberg/PPAUK)

Initially brought into the group as an England Women’s Pathway coach, Hunter’s first post oversaw the progression of the aspiring Red Roses hopefuls, as they made strides towards test cap level. However, the former Loughborough Lightning lock soon stepped into the senior coaching staff, and in March of this year, Hunter was appointed the defence coach role for the Red Roses as they embarked on their 2024 Women’s Six Nations campaign.

Speaking in a recent England rugby press conference, Hunter expressed how she is enjoying stepping outside of her comfort zone with the new challenges that being a coach presents. Admittedly, there are times where the former second row would love to be out running the phases with the Red Roses on the field, but Hunter is now taking a new sense of fulfilment from her role as England Women defence coach.

“Definitely still enjoying it. Being able to be in this environment and be part of this amazing team and help them in a small way, is something you can’t help enjoy. off the field, the girls are a great bunch to be around. As are the staff, so I feel very lucky to have have come into it. Did I feel comfortable at the start? Absolutely not. I felt very uncomfortable, maybe not because I was a player coming in, it was just a bit of the unknown.

“It was definitely something I hadn’t prepared for. So, not that I’m as graceful as a swan at all, but on the surface, I was trying to pretend like I knew what I was doing! Where under the water I was frantically being like, ‘am I doing the right thing is this it?’ So I do feel over time, that has got a little bit easier, and it seems a bit more seamless now, than maybe I felt anyway at the start.

“But I absolutely love it. I love learning every day. I love being challenged by the players in a really positive way, in terms of being able to push them and the conversations we have. How we work together, specifically for me to move our defence forward, and it’s a great team to be involved (with). The girls are brilliant at work, their energy is just exuberant. They’re just so driven for wanting to get better and to perform. You can’t help but enjoy being part of that.”

Hunter was full of pride when she watched on at Twickenham, as England defeated France 38-33 to win the 2023 Women’s Six Nations Grand Slam. The fixture had monumental implications, as the 58,498 fans set a new attendance record for a women’s rugby match. Hunter admitted how she did not expect to be apart of the coaching staff just a year later, but fondly recalled the match as a pivotal podium for the Red Roses stars.

“It was an incredible day, being part of it last year. Seeing all the fans and seeing the girls run out and just the whole day, it was quite emotional to see just how far the game had come. When I was there, I didn’t think like the following year I’d be involved in this capacity. So to be able to share in that experience that the girls all spoke about, and actually now to be firsthand involved with the girls in a different capacity, it’s one of the reasons why you coach.

“For days like this, for moments to see just how far the game’s gone. To allow our brilliant Red Roses to shine on the biggest stage and hopefully inspire that next generation of people who will be there in person, and will be tuning into to watch and see how great the sport is.”

A self professed ‘hard taskmaster’, Hunter has stamped her defensive style on the Red Roses set-up that is so far reaping the rewards. The former Loughborough lock led the defensive effort for two milestone victories in the latest Women’s Six Nations campaign, as England kept both Scotland and Italy score-less for the entire 80 minutes.

England began their campaign with a 48-0 win in Rome, before handing the Scots a 46-0 defeat in Edinburgh’s Hive Stadium. Speaking on her pride for ‘nilling’ the opposition, Hunter expressed how there is always more work to be done.

“It’s always pretty pleasing when you get a zero on the board. But where this team is at now, we don’t just pat ourselves on the back and go ‘brilliant, we haven’t conceded twice’ we continue on to strive to get better. So we did look pretty hard at our defense and about where we need to get better, and what are the areas we can grow from, and there are definitely a couple of key things for us to go after.

Sarah Hunter of England Women Rugby (Saracens, 8 caps) during the England Women Rugby and USA WomenÕs Rugby at Sandy Park on 3 Sept 2022. Photo: Phil Mingo/PPAUK.

“It seems like I’ve been a bit of a hard taskmaster, but we will be in games where we’ll have different challenges that we face, and different challenges that are posed against us, and we’ll have to overcome. And actually, there are definitely areas where we need to keep working on and keep honing in. The girls are really reflective and really honest with that as well.
I guess they’re quite similar in that they always want to be pushing and always want to be getting better. So we’re quite aligned on that. It was good, but there’s always things to work on for the next game!”

Having been a Red Rose for 16 years, Hunter has made some lifelong friends within the current crop of players. Amongst her oldest colleagues is Emily Scarratt, who Hunter played alongside at club level with Litchfield Ladies and Loughborough Lightning. ‘Sunts’ and ‘Scaz’ were first teammates in 2007, and have only been apart for two seasons, when Hunter had a brief spell with Bristol Bears Women.

Emily Scarratt, Vice Captain of England Women on the break during the TikTok Womens Six Nations match between England Women and Wales Women at Kingsholm Stadium on April 9 2022 in Gloucester, England. (Photo by Tom Sandberg/PPAUK)

Scarratt was away from the England team through a long term injury, which overlapped Hunter’s move to coaching. Scarratt previously spoke to RUCK about how it took some getting used to, as her long-time friend was now being apart of the England coaching staff. Hunter expressed how she and Scarratt have since had to alter their interactions when in their newfound ‘player’ and ‘coach’ dynamic, compared to how they used to be as on-field teammates.

“I guess at Loughborough, I’ve probably had a bit of time with her (Scarratt) coaching, when I picked up little bit of skills and breakdown stuff, during that (time). So, she has been aware of coaching, but she’s just a professional. Hopefully the same I was with the other girls that, like I was good friends with hopefully still am good friends with, is that in terms of when we get to rugby, it’s rugby.

“I guess from a point of view the relationship we had, within I guess captaincy and vice-captaincy, we would quite often have like honest conversations about the game and things like that. I personally hope that she would see that I haven’t changed and actually giving them information. I’m probably the same as other players, like especially within the backs, well she’s (Scarratt) got 100-odd caps played for years, got that experience and actually she’s got a wealth of knowledge that I can tap into as well.

“So it’s definitely not one-way, it’s trying to build on how I want to coach up that relationship with a player, in terms of going ‘well what did you see, what did you feel like, we could do this differently. Have you got a different opinion on it?’ So I don’t see that having changed really from how our rugby relationships developed over the last few years.

“I mean, she might have a completely different opinion! I think it’s great to have her back in the environment. Like I say she’s got a wealth of knowledge to add to the team as well. And after such a long time away from the game with all the difficulties she’s had, it’s great to see her back in an England shirt.”

The Red Roses continue to march on as the number one ranked women’s side in the world, with the momentum building at a blistering pace ahead of the 2025 Women’s Rugby World Cup. Hosted on home soil and kicking off in Hunter’s home county of Tyne and Wear, Hunter is excited to be apart of the tournament that get’s underway in Sunderland’s Stadium of Light.

One happy Sarah Hunter, Captain of England Women after the autumn international match between England Women and New Zealand Women at Sandy Park on 31 Oct 2021. Photo: Phil Mingo/PPAUK

Hunter admitted how had she been born a couple years later, then she would have eyed up the incoming Women’s Rugby World Cup as an exciting on-field opportunity. However, the Red Roses defence coach is equally happy to push her side forward, and lead England to their first world title since 2014 from the touchline.

“I guess you don’t quite know what you want to do post retirement, but the fact that I’ve been able to come back in and the timing of it, where the games going, and how it’s building, and the fact that we’ve got home World Cup next year. I knew I was never going to make it as a player, but there’s always that bit about like, ‘if I was only a year or two younger’, I might have been able to.

“Now I get to be part of it in a different way. It’s a really exciting time to be part of the game and try and make a small difference in some way. I do feel very fortunate that I’ve been given this opportunity to do that and be involved in the game at its most exciting, biggest time that I think we’ll see.”

The playing field for the 2025 Women’s Rugby World Cup is beginning to fill out, as more and more teams book their place at next year’s showpiece event. Ireland became the most recent side to qualify for the tournament, after their third place finish in the 2024 Women’s Six Nations.

Former Red Roses coach Scott Bemand has taken over the team from the Emerald Isle, in a rejuvenating push to find form. Bemand took Ireland from Six Nations wooden spoon holders to WRWC Qualifiers, and Hunter expressed how impressed she’s been by the turn around of form.

“Scott’s come in and really added and given them direction and organization. You can see that on both sides of the ball with how they’re going to attack, and how they want to defend. Obviously they brought (Declan) Danaher in as well who’s shored up their defense no end.

“I think they’re the most dominant team in in the Six Nations with with how they hit. Seeing some of their PWR players in, our English League, week in, week out and playing them, you can really see that.”

The Red Roses coaching staff is headed up by John Mitchell, and the New Zealander had some difficult decisions to make throughout the recent Women’s Six Nations campaign. With such plentiful depth available in every position, England are currently a team spoiled for choice which Hunter describes as causing some ‘selection headaches’ for the staff.

“If we have really simple principles and processes, actually, it shouldn’t matter who is pulling on that jersey, because we’re all on the same page of what our role is, what’s expected of us and how we execute it. So I guess the great luxury that we have at the minute in the Red Roses, we’ve got such strength and depth in areas.

“I think that again, that’s probably a good thing for a coach, it does give some headaches when it comes to choosing that 23. But if we do have really clear principles and processes, whoever steps in that jersey will execute for us, and the combinations are who is right for that team and things like that. So yeah, that’s why we’ve gone thay way with our foundation of how we want to defend.”