Sarah Hunter believes England are on the cusp of becoming trailblazers in European women’s rugby both on and off the pitch, writes Ella Jerman.
The Red Roses have enjoyed remarkable success in 2019, winning the Women's Six Nations Grand Slam before triumphing over France twice in as many weeks, claiming their first win on French soil since 2012 in the first of their autumn internationals.
Their success comes as no surprise to many, with England having won 15 of the 24 Six Nations tournaments held since 1996, but for Hunter, it is the growth they are spearheading off the pitch that really makes the Red Roses stand out.
England recorded their fourth win in a row against Les Bleues in front of 9,699 fans at Sandy Park last weekend and according to the back-rower, those attendance figures will soon be giving the famously well-supported French women's team a run for their money.
“France may have been the leaders in getting support for the women’s game once upon a time but we’re certainly catching up,” said the England captain.
“We all knew it was going to be difficult when we saw the autumn fixtures and that we had a double-header against the French.
“France has always been a difficult place for us to go, having not won there since 2012 before two weeks ago and they always take us to sold-out grounds where there will be a hostile atmosphere.
“But people are really coming out to support us too now, even at away games and on Saturday at Sandy Park, we could really feel the fans behind us.
“The atmosphere was incredible when we played there in the Six Nations and it was no different this time. Everywhere we go now, we’re selling out stadiums or nearing full capacity and for us, that’s amazing.
“When I got my first cap 12 years ago, we played at Old Albanian Rugby Club in front of just a couple of hundred people. It’s a great club, but not where you’d host an international game these days.
“Now we’re playing in front of tens of thousands of people in the likes of Exeter, Doncaster and Bedford where we face Italy this weekend. The shift has been huge, and I think we really are on the crest of a wave.”
The future is looking bright on all fronts for England rugby, but Hunter knows there is still plenty of work to be done if they want to retain their Women's Six Nations title in 2020.
They may have won 16 home internationals in a row, but that record is only just intact, the Red Roses needing a last-minute try from Lydia Thompson to defeat France 17-15 last weekend and the 34-year-old insists an improved performance is needed against Italy - who finished second in the Women's Six Nations earlier this year - in Bedford on Saturday.
“Building on our winning momentum is so important if we want to register success next year, both on and off the pitch,” she added.
“Our two results against France will not feel as good as they do right now if we don’t back them up with a win against Italy on Saturday.
“The progress they’ve made over the past few years has been quite incredible.
“We know we have to improve on our weak areas if we want to finish our autumn series on a high ahead of next year’s Six Nations.”