By Rachel Steinberg
Men’s milestones are equally undermined when women’s are ignored, believes England skipper Sarah Hunter.
When Ben Youngs earned his 115th cap during February’s Six Nations, numerous headlines across England celebrated the scrum-half’s achievement as the country’s all-time most-capped player.
There was just one problem: it wasn’t true. That honor still belongs to the retired Red Rose Rocky Clark at 137, while Hunter earned her 133rd in England’s 58-5 victory over Wales in the TikTok Women’s Six Nations on Saturday.
“We need to change the perception that when people talk about records it isn’t just assuming it’s men,” said the 36-year-old, who scored an 80th-minute try in England’s 21st straight Test win.
“As female players there’s a lot of challenges you come up with [against] over time and I think gradually they’re becoming less and less, but it’s something that gets thrown up and you’re like, ‘there’s actually a history for women’s rugby as well.’
“It’s just about time and education so we don’t have the frustration still. It [also] takes away from Ben Youngs and his achievement, to get drawn into this men vs women discussion.
“The greatest thing will be [when] we can distinguish from the outset, and the media can do a little bit more research to understand where that fits in with the greater game. ”
For a lesson in how to handle things, suggested the Loughborough Lightning No. 8, one only need look to Andy Murray.
In 2017, the three-time Grand Slam winner famously rectified a reporter who suggested Murray’s opponent, Sam Querrey, was the first American to reach the major semi-final since 2009 — but Venus Williams, as the Scot quickly noted, had previously done the same.
Nevertheless, urged Hunter, correction and compassion should go hand in hand.
“It doesn’t necessarily offend me,” she said. “But I think it’s important for [women’s achievements] to be distinguished and a lot of people spoke about it. I think it’s good that’s happening.
“The biggest part of it is not trying to call them out for saying the wrong thing. They might just genuinely not know, and I think that’s an education thing, like, actually there are female players who have gone on to get more.
“And it doesn’t take anything away from the achievement that Ben Youngs has done, because it’s absolutely incredible to play 115 times for your country.”
Hunter debuted for England in 2007, reaching a century of appearances a decade later. That same year, she led the Red Roses to their first Six Nations Grand Slam in five years.
But she’s been plagued by a series of health challenges, including a career-threatening neural neck injury that forced her off the international stage for 13 months, struggling to tie her shoelaces or hold anything at all – let alone a rugby ball.
Hunter’s remarkable return in 2021 saw her lead England to a third straight Six Nations trophy, with this weekend’s victory keeping the Championship-leading Red Roses’ Grand Slam dream alive ahead of their Round 4 clash with Ireland on 24 April.
But competition for starting places in Simon Middleton’s line-up has never been fiercer, and Hunter, who has found herself among the finishers more often these days, is adamant: she expects no special treatment as captain.
Though, what about Clark’s England record that is now within touching distance?
“I’ve loved every moment of my career and every cap,” Hunter insisted.
“So many things can happen in rugby, and I think that from last year, with the pandemic from the injury I had, I just want to keep playing for England.
“If I get to play one more time, or another eight times, or whatever it is, that’s the journey I’m meant to go on.
“I’ll be as proud to play 133 times as I would do to play 138. It’s ultimately out of my hands. I’ll play each game I get picked for and what will be will be.
“Whether I get to that milestone or I don’t have had an amazing career.”
Still, rugby is a game of bonus points — and one gets the sneaking suspension Hunter wouldn’t balk at the extra boost of her seeing her name alongside the “record-breaker” in a headline.
The TikTok Women’s Six Nations is more accessible than ever before. To find out how you can watch the Women’s Championship visit: womens.sixnationsrugby.com/tv/