That’s not only down to the team’s determination to avenge last year’s second-place finish, but also because of the progress made off the field.

Following an announcement last year, the Six Nations will be the first time England’s women play as full-time professionals — a landmark moment for English rugby.

Captain Sarah Hunter, who has over 100 caps and 11 years of international experience, knows just how much significance the decision holds.

“There’s certainly a real buzz around what this is going to mean for the girls,” 33-year-old Hunter told CNN ahead of her country’s opening game against Ireland.

“Either people like myself, who have had to have full-time jobs throughout their international careers but now know that isn’t the case, to the other side, players who are coming out of university and this is their first job, or they’re not going to university because this is the career path they want to choose — to be a full-time rugby player.”

Sarah Hunter captained England during its run to the World Cup final in 2017.

Growing the game

The Red Roses were full-time for a period during the 2017 World Cup when they lost in the final to New Zealand, but that was only a temporary measure.

This time, however, the contracts are here for the long-run, up to and beyond the next World Cup in 2021.

England’s results on the field, meanwhile, have also been promising, with victories over USA, Canada, and Ireland in November. The world’s No. 2 ranked side will now go for Six Nations glory after a narrow heartbreaking defeat by to France cost them the championship last year.

Hunter (center right) will face Italy, Wales, France, Ireland, and Scotland in the Six Nations.
While other countries operate on a semi-professional basis, no other nation has put up a deal that compares with the one England has offered its 15-aside female rugby players. In total, 28 full-time contracts have been handed out, with the largest salaries thought to be worth £28,000 ($36,500).
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Hunter is aware, however, that England’s rivals aren’t far behind in how they fund the women’s game.

“France are already investing heavily,” Hunter said. “You see the likes of Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Italy, even Spain all putting money in through additional camps, additional fixtures, autumn internationals, pre-Six Nations games … they’re certainly investing in their program and that’s obviously the first step to going all the way.”

‘First day of school’ feeling

There was a general feeling within the game that the introduction of professional contracts was long overdue for the Red Roses, who were crowned world champions in 2014.
England’s men reportedly receive £23,000 ($30,000) per game, a sum that dwarfs the amount received by their female counterparts.

“The men’s game generates something like 85% of the money that’s distributed across the England Rugby landscape,” Damian Hopley, chairman of the Rugby Players’ Association (RPA), an organization that helps negotiate players’ contracts, told CNN.

“So in terms of broadcast deals, sponsorship, hospitality, ticket sales, licensing, all those key areas that make up the bulk of the Rugby Football Union’s annual revenue and income is generated by the men’s team.

“We hope that there will be an upturn in the fortunes of the women’s game and we’ll see the game starting to grow.”

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Katy Daley-McLean runs in a try against USA in 2018.

Hopley stresses, however, that the impact of the contracts will be immediate for the players: “It’s not just around training and playing,” he added, “It’s around the recovery, the nutrition, the sleep, all the various aspects that go into being a professional athlete.

“I was down at the camp recently and you get a real sense of the excitement. As one of the girls described it, it’s almost like the first day of school.”

How the RFU goes about growing the women’s game is a matter of debate, but Hopley thinks England’s players are doing all they can in that regard.

“The best way to boost any sport is to have champions,” he said. “I certainly feel that the women more than uphold their end of the bargain in terms of keeping their performance levels high.”

Then there’s the question of scheduling. This Six Nations, the Red Roses will play home games in Exeter and Doncaster, far smaller venues than Twickenham where they will face Scotland before the men take to the field.

Although the women’s fixtures struggle to fill the national stadium, crowds have been at an all-time high for England games. Last year’s contest against France in Grenoble was watched by 17,434 — a record for the Women’s Six Nations.

There’s a desire for all the fixtures to eventually be played at the home of English rugby.

“Hopefully one day we’ll be able to sell tickets to go to Twickenham or we’ll be able to have 30 or 40,000 people there which actually makes a huge difference,” said Hunter.

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Moving forward

Further down the line, Hunter says she wants to see female rugby players in clubs — not just international colors — being handed contracts.

“I’d love to see in five years’ time that the domestic league is, if not professional, then semiprofessional,” she added.

“So even if you’re not an international player, if you’re a club player, you are either being paid full-time to do that or you’re at least part-time so you don’t have to work as many hours to be able to play rugby.”

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Right now, however, the immediate focus for Hunter and the team is on the five upcoming games against their European rivals. The appetite to play has never been greater.

“We want to win games, we want to be the world’s side, we want to win World Cups, we want to win the Six Nations,” she said. “And now we’ve been given every opportunity to do that.”

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