I PLAYED international rugby for 15 years until 2018, so while I am still playing club rugby with Wasps, it did feel like the end of an era when I decided to retire last year after 47 tries and 82 caps.
Winning the World Cup in 2014 has to be the highlight of my time in a white jersey. We lost in the final in 2006 and 2010 so to go on and finish the journey with my mates, was really, really special. Getting to score in the final was electric.
I got the ball from the back of a scrum and had a run down the touchline. Play then went from one side to the other and after and incredible dummy in the middle by Tamara Taylor the ball ended up with Maggie Alphonsi. Maggie wasn’t renowned for her passing, but I screamed so loud she had no choice but to give it to me and I just dashed over the line. I can remember thinking, ‘oh my god, I have just scored’ and throwing the ball in the air.
The moment Maggie flew off the side of the first scrum and nailed the Canadian fly-half, I remember thinking from full-back, ‘we’ve got this’.
The World Cup win really put women’s rugby on the map, and to be a part of that and seeing how positive the long-term effect has been is something I’m really proud of.
The other week I was at a training session at Grasshoppers RFC in Isleworth, West London, where Premiership sponsors Gallagher announced their partnership with Project Rugby, an initiative that enables rugby to reach out and connect new communities and promote the sport.
To be asked down there as one of their ambassadors highlighted to me just how far women’s rugby has come since I started out mixing it with the boys at Minehead Barbarians in Somerset and then on to New Zealand, where my passion for rugby became even more entrenched for four years before returning to the UK.
There’s probably over 100 girls and women down at the club now. At 13, I didn’t even know an England women’s team existed let alone be able to name any of the players yet here these girls were, at the start of their rugby playing days, having a former international standing in front of them and passing on tips.
A year after the World Cup win, and shortly after I’d got my first professional contract, I injured my knee badly and was told I might never play again. I was devastated because I felt I still had plenty to give. Thankfully my hard work paid off and I made it back onto the field. The first time I got to run out again as an England player was probably just as special as my first cap, at the end of the 2003 Grand Slam-winning season. I was only 18 at the time and seeing then what success meant to a hard-working group of women was really inspiring.
A few months into my comeback I became an Olympian. To be a part of the most special sporting occasion was a dream come true. Just walking around the Olympic Village and being surrounded by other people achieving their dreams was another experience I cherished. I shared a lift with Andy Murray, walked straight past Jess Ennis and queued in security behind Usain Bolt, those are the types of memories that last forever!
Now I’m fortunate to be working alongside Giselle Mather at Wasps Ladies. They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but she has always encouraged me to try out new things and bring out a different side to my game. She has had me playing at 13, doing crossfield kicks and calling different plays from first receiver. Giselle is a wonderful woman and one of the best coaches I have worked with, male or female. It is a real privilege to call her my coach and my friend.
– as told to JON NEWCOMBE
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