‘I couldn’t tie my shoelaces’: Sarah Hunter returns to rugby after neural injury

Sarah Hunter will return to international action for the first time in more than a year on Saturday after overcoming a neural injury which left her struggling to complete day-to-day tasks.

The 35-year-old will start as England’s No.8 against Italy in their second Six Nations match in Parma, where she is in line to earn her 124th cap. Simon Middleton’s side are looking to make it two wins from two from their truncated campaign.

“It was probably the toughest injury I’ve ever had based on the fact that nobody knew what it was,” said Hunter, who was ruled out of the 54-0 win against Italy that sealed England’s 2020 Grand Slam last November because of a hamstring strain.

“I went to see different specialists, had numerous MRIs, numerous tests, electric tests, all sorts of different things. You’d go to an appointment hoping you’d get an answer and there was no answer. 

“I lost power in my hand and it was affecting day-to-day stuff, like doing my shoelaces, holding things, eating. They begin to have conversations with you around your long-term day-to-day life, which is quite right but obviously as a rugby player that becomes quite worrying, because you then think, ‘What happens if you don’t get to play rugby?’”

Hunter’s return means the in-form Poppy Cleall, who was England’s star player last week against Scotland, drops to the bench as Middleton makes ten changes to his starting side for this weekend’s encounter at the Stadio Plebiscito.

“It wasn’t a difficult decision,” Middleton said on selecting Hunter, “albeit there’s some players who have been playing outstandingly well at the moment and Sarah knows that she’s got great competition.”

Confirmation that Scotland hooker Molly Wright will miss the remainder of the tournament after being sent off for a high tackle on Vickii Cornborough in England’s 52-10 win last week has prompted Middleton to draft in referee Sara Cox to oversee his players’ tackle technique in training.

Hunter said: “Because of the shortened format of the tournament, obviously you’ve got to get that right. It is something that I know the players are very focused on and we’ve spoken about it in review sessions.”

Middeton has opted for the same half-back pairing in Leanne Riley and Helena Rowland, while Saracens fly-half Zoe Harrison returns to the match-day squad after breaching coronavirus protocols. “It’s a lesson,” Harrison told Telegraph Sport. “It’s a new game week and I’m now just focusing on training hard and preparing for Italy.” 

England have a rest week before facing what is most likely to be France on April 24 on the competition’s grand final weekend. The RFU is yet to reveal the location for that fixture, with Twickenham not possible due to the pitch being relaid.

“The goal is for Twickenham to become our home ground,” said Harrison, a Chelsea fan who watched the England women’s football team playing in front of a record 77,768 crowd at Wembley in November 2019.

“When I saw that, I was like, ‘When are we going to sell out Twickenham? We need to sell out Twickenham!’” says Harrison. “ I constantly say we need to be chasing women’s football. Everything they do, we need to be on that.” 

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