Bruce Perkins has submitted several ‘Journalesque’ Blog posts and whilst I intended to post them in order, we wanted to post Part 11 today, while it was ‘in the air’. Normal service shall be resumed forthwith … Yours in Rugby, – Max.
The news breaks on 12 October. Alongside the announcement of the 43-strong squad from whom the Elite Squad will be chosen for the November Old Mutual Wealth Series against Canada and the first gathering of the 7s squad at Bisham, comes the totally unexpected news of Kay Wilson’s retirement from the Red Roses and rugby altogether. We have to wait till the 14th to read scrumqueens.com’s report of the interview Alison Donnelly had with her. It makes for thoughtful reading.
Wilson had told the coaching staff way back that this would be her last season. They and her close friends did well to keep this a secret. She had long harboured a desire to live and work abroad. If she didn’t make the move now, when would she ever take the plunge? This might seem strange for a person who has visited – amongst other Shangri-Las – Canada, The USA, Brazil, Dubai, France, Italy, Australia, New Zealand, Holland and Hong Kong by the age of 25. But her decision is that she will move to Sydney in December with her younger sister to live and work there for a period.
She represents a new class of female rugby player. When she was selected to play in the 2014 World Cup in France, she was 22 and just leaving university. She and the rest of the squad were given contracts. For the others, this meant giving up their job; she hadn’t started a career yet, so the problem was less acute. But now (September 2017) that the 15s contracts have lapsed, they can – with luck – return to the work they had been doing. She must start looking for one. She might well have offered herself for a place in the 7s squad. Many would consider it a life chance – journeys to the Commonwealth Games, the World Championships and the Olympics in rapid succession – but that would take her near the age of 30. No, the right option was to draw a line under her playing career now.
It marks her out as an exception to the general rule. She loved her rugby as much as the next girl, but she knew there was another, larger world outside. She had the courage to kick against the traditional traces and say Enough was Enough. This was a brave decision, and she had plenty of time (and experiences) during 2017 to have second thoughts. But she didn’t.
And what a career it has been. She rose very quickly through the representative ranks from the humble beginnings at Old Caterhamians, Warlingham and Dorking Clubs, to reach the England Under 20s at the tender age of 18. With the U20s she made friends who were to stay close to her for the rest of her career, Mo Hunt and Emily Scarratt especially.
At Cardiff Metropolitam University, she played a leading role in taking them to the BUCS final at Twickenham, where not only did they win, but she was given the SuperGrad award for the outstanding player of the entire tournament. She combined her university studies with games for Bristol and call-ups for England – 7s as well as 15s. She was skilled at both forms, and didn’t find switching from one to the other taxing, because they alternated in chunks; she could immerse herself in one version of the game at a time.
As early as 2012, aged 20, she was in Hong Kong as part of the England 7s squad. There she scored a sensational try in the final against Australia. Receiving the ball just outside her 22, she quickly assessed the situation and broke to her right. She freed herself from two wrong-footed opponents, then began the acceleration that was to become so familiar to her admirers, and so feared by her opponents. She had 70 metres to cover with no immediate support handy. Her only option was to run as fast as she could. As she dropped over the line, her nearest chaser vaulted over her and lay in a heap. Kay tried to get up but dropped to the ground too and lay face down as she tried to take in oxygen. The crowd roared. England won the final 15-10.
To be chosen to represent her country at the World Cup at 22 marked her out as a player of outstanding ability. There was no certainty she would go on to play in the later stages of the competition, as some of the younger players in the 2017 version have discovered. Poppy Cleall and Zoe Aldcroft, both Wilson’s comparable age, were deemed surplus to requirements. It took real class for the youngest team members, Amy Cokayne and Sarah Bern, to repeat Wilson’s achievement and play ‘at the death’, in the final.
Wilson had secured that distinction by fine displays in the pool stages of 2014, where she totalled three tries against Spain and Samoa; in the semi-final against Ireland, she scored a vital try by squeezing in at the left-corner flag. The flagpole took a pasting. It needed the TMO to confirm that the only body across the touchline was the Irish defender, desperately trying to hold her out.
She played a less central role in the final, where Emily Scarratt was needed to win the day through her kicking and her penetrating running. Still, it was a remarkable achievement for her to have been included at this exalted level out of a squad of only 26. Like all her team-mates, she was given accolades and invitations on her return. Perhaps visits to The Open, Ascot, the Royal Box at Wimbledon and 10, Downing Street were ample reward for all the intense work she and her team-mates had to put in over a lengthy period.
She approached the current season 2017-8 knowing it would be her last. Its many successes have brought her huge satisfaction, but the loss to the Black Ferns in the final in Belfast was a cruel blow. The series had begun blissfully for her against Spain, with the ball travelling her way as if on a conveyor-belt. She was on the receiving end of her pal, Katy Mclean’s pin-point cross-kick that was adjudged one of the tries of the tournament. She showed the full range of a winger’s role: not just running in unmarked for easy tries, but bodyslamming an defender to reach the line, tackling fearsome opponents and supporting rucks when the forwards were far away.
With three wings available, she sat out the next game against Italy. In retrospect, it can be seen as a lost opportunity to gain a total of 50 caps. But she knew the management had to stick to their carefully laid plans. She didn’t expect favoured treatment.
Looking back so soon after retirement, she reveals that the international matches are ‘the fun part. It’s all the preparation that is very tough and hugely emotionally draining’.
Yes, it’s not merely the physical pressure put on the human frame in the training programme; the worst moments are waiting by your laptop for news of your selection or omission just prior to an international. The joy of the former is matched by the despair of the latter. Even when you are picked, your best mate may not be, and you suffer on her behalf too. Kay will be glad to be rid of that.
So she remains the only member of the 28-strong squad to retire after the World Cup. Many might have assumed that the senior players would have come to the same decision – straight after the final. But no; all four players who were at their fourth World Cup, Rachael Burford, Rocky Clark, Tamara Taylor and Daneille Waterman, are soldiering on in the Tyrrells League and enjoying it. But they represent a quite different generation. Clark started playing at 15. There is an argument that the younger a person is starting a sport, the sooner (s)he will give it up. And the reverse may well be true too. Wilson has been playing rugby for 21 of her 26 years. Now she is looking for a new life. Her friends and admirers will miss her.
And ‘The Sidestep’?
It’s impossible to summarise a career in a single snapshot, but there was a wonderful moment in England’s destruction of Australia in Porirua in June 2017. Sarah McKenna delivered a beautiful pass to Wilson on the right – she received a jolting tackle to her head for her pains. But Wilson took the ball on at full pace. She shimmied left, then right to outsmart two defenders and raced over to score a quite spectacular try. No wonder Emily Scott came racing over to embrace her.
Like her friend and fellow-winger, Lydia Thompson, Wilson had the full armoury of the winger’s art. But of these weapons, the side-step at pace is one of the greatest glories of the game.