Rugby

Sarah Hunter: World Rugby’s high performance academy is brilliant initiative

The former England captain was among 16 aspiring female coaches to emerge through the inaugural programme last year.

Former England captain Sarah Hunter is now forging a coaching career
Sarah Hunter Former England captain Sarah Hunter is now forging a coaching career (Andrew Matthews/PA)

Former England captain Sarah Hunter has hailed World Rugby’s high performance academy as a “brilliant initiative” for the women’s game.

Hunter was among 16 aspiring female coaches to emerge through the inaugural programme last year, which saw them being embedded with their respective nations before and during the WXV tournament in New Zealand.

There were also a series of online and in-person workshops that apart from rugby also looked at areas such as cultural elements, building relationships and campaign planning.

Sarah Hunter is part of England’s coaching team preparing for the Women’s Six Nations
Sarah Hunter Sarah Hunter is part of England’s coaching team preparing for the Women’s Six Nations (Brett Phibbs/PA)

Hunter is now part of England’s coaching team preparing for the Guinness Women’s Six Nations, which kicks off on March 23.

And World Rugby has a target of seeing women make up a minimum 40 per cent of all coaches involved at the England-hosted 2025 World Cup that sees Twickenham staging the final.

Year two of the Gallagher High Performance Academy will feature 10 sevens coaches, including Saracens full-back Sarah McKenna and Leinster wing Emily McKeown, participating in a programme now extended to all formats of the women’s game.

“Having been part of it, World Rugby and Gallagher have brought to life what they said they wanted to do,” Hunter told the PA news agency.

“It is a brilliant initiative, one that has been about making really positive change and immersing coaches within high performance teams.”

Hunter retired from playing in 2023 after winning a world record 141 caps. She led England to World Cup glory in 2014 and was named women’s world player of the year two years later.

“The last six years of my playing career I was player-coach at Loughborough Lightning, where I looked after the forwards, so I have always had a real passion to try and help people get better,” she added.

“I was probably teeing myself up for some kind of coaching job, but I had no idea it would be the role I am currently doing.

“Having been a very recent former player, I’ve got a good understanding of how players want to be coached because I’ve heard many a time about what was right, what was wrong, what could be better, so I’ve tried to remember that.

“The game has changed significantly, and it is about having opportunities for females. It is such an exciting time for the game, so let’s be really ambitious, keep setting targets.

“Knowing the talent that is out there and having sat as part of the high performance academy, their knowledge of the game is incredible. These people can make a significant difference to their teams.

“A lot of the players have an interest in coaching, and if we are creating more opportunities we are going to be keeping more great people within the game. Hopefully, people can see the impact the academy is having.”

Jo Yapp, who had a 12-year England playing career, recently became the first female head coach of Australia’s women’s rugby union team, and it is that level of progression Hunter believes the academy can help underpin.

“Hopefully, the way in which the academy works, the major outcome goal with that is to transition those candidates who are on it in to those coaching roles,” she said.

“We have already seen something like a 20 per cent uplift of people going into coaching roles in different unions, and it is really important to have ambitious targets.

“It means people have to make change and people have to be seen to be making change, so it puts pressure on governing bodies around the world. Let’s set the bar high and let’s strive for it.

“What would be brilliant is almost changing perception. We’ve got brilliant female coaches out there around the world and they probably just need a bit of a nudge of ‘right, you’re in’. And when they are in, people see how good they are.”