McKenna’s hypnotising return to XVs rugby….

Followers of @RugbySaracens voted for Sarah McKenna as their Saracens Women’s Player of the Season for 2018-19. She spoke recently to James from @RugbySaracens about the award, her successful return to XVs rugby this season, winning the Grand Slam with England in March and the forthcoming Super Series in the USA.

How does it feel to receive this award voted for by the fans and followers of @RugbySaracens?
It’s amazing. I’ve always been first and foremost a fan of Saracens and watching the games ever since I was ten years old watching the games at Vicarage Road. I know how much the fans get behind the players and the team. To be on the other side of that and get so many votes come through is amazing and the flipside to get that support yourself.
I’ve been at Vicarage Road, and the type of ground that was, a bit spit and sawdust at times, and I just remember the hairs going up on the back of my neck when the crowd really got going. It’s been a long while since I was able to make loads and loads of games so to feel that type of support through the votes has been amazing.
I’ve been playing the game long enough, so I guess I’ve built up a bit of rapport. The fans are always so kind and when we put out videos of the tries and stuff. The fans lap it up and it makes you want to do something a little bit special on the pitch so that you can may be get a video put out in the week so that the fans really enjoy it. I really love it when you go online, and you see on Twitter that people are enjoying what you are doing. It feels really good to be on the ‘Trylights’ videos. If it’s a boring score, no offence to the forwards, a pick and go, versus Georgie Lingham sprinting down the win and beating three people that’s cool and fun.

It’s been a successful year as Tyrrell’s Premier 15s champions. What did the win mean to you?

It’s sinking in. At the time it was a tough day, with loads of emotions and that sort of thing doesn’t stick until afterwards. I suppose there were points in the year when we had massive frustrations at what we were doing. I suppose I didn’t think about that on the pitch with the trophy, but two weeks after when I think we know what sort of a bother we were in at times and how we pulled through that. That’s what has really sunk in. We managed to get through some of those teething moments and get to where we were. The best thing about winning the trophy is knowing the journey we had been on.

The last minute try against Harlequins at Allianz Park?
Exactly. The first half was an indication of some of those frustrations. Once we had got that weight off our shoulders because there was nothing to lose and to throw everything at it. We started to move the ball a bit wider and having confidence out wide then it really clicked. I think that was a bit of a turning point for the rest in the season. I think having that confidence and things clicking and seeing it on the pitch has been amazing.

Never give up, always believe…?
Yes. We have a young team, an ambitious team. Players who won’t lie down in the face of defeat or if things are going against them. That’s amazing. You can definitely feel that on the pitch that when things aren’t going right on the pitch someone will say something or make a change.

It’s not your first win in the league with Saracens after winning in 2014-15. How does that feel? It must seem like a different world.

That was my second season back with Sarries and I was playing at 10 or 12 so I was in the thick of the action for a lot the time. That was amazing. I remember that season being a real slog. We weren’t playing in some of the nice luxuries we have now or playing on nice pitches or what not.
That was probably the last time I played 15s and there were some real tough occasions where you are playing in thick, deep mud and rubbish changing rooms and stuff like that. Now coming back here, having had things moved on, it’s a luxury being able to play on this pitch and having the support behind us, in terms of our support staff and physio and stuff like that. Being away from the game and coming back and having all of this in one place is amazing.

Does it feel like a huge shift?
Yes. Having the support network around it is a huge shift. And also, the standard. It’s huge. Just from being out for a year as I did the World Cup year, then I went back to 7s, just that one year I was out, it’s been huge changes.
With the implementation of the Tyrrells Premier 15s, that’s done the game wonders. I remember watching it, having come from 7s where the contacts were fast but not so impactful, and I watched some of the XVs and I though that’s going to be really hard to get back into. I was wincing. I was on the side-line, and I think it was Lottie [Clapp, Saracens Women’s back to back TP15 title-winning captain) running down the wing where she takes people on, and the high velocity impact, plus she’s taking on three players. You never get that in 7s because there’s too much space; there’s not that many people in that small area. I thought I’m coming back to this and I hope I can make the grade.

As a Saracens fan you were following them while you were away. Who have you most enjoyed coming back to play with or against?
I think I’ve played with Hannah Casey since I was about 14 years old. I think she hasn’t changed at all. I suppose she’s added bits to her game but the manner in which she plays hasn’t changed, that drive, full-on, reliable. When I was at 10, she always used to be outside me, so I was like, ‘here you go, you truck it up, nothing’s happening, do something’ and she always did and it’s been no change. She’s insane and to see her development has been really good.

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Who has been your toughest opponent you’ve come back to play against, individuals or teams?
Different teams offer so many different things. I think that’s cool to see that everyone is not putting out the same product. I think when we played Gloucester at home, and they had Heather Fisher playing for them, that was really tough, and the way they moved the ball then. They had Kelly Smith on the wing as well and that was really tough.
The forward pack with Quins was really tough, when we played them away and we couldn’t make inroads and every time they had the ball, they kept coming forwards and we didn’t have the same impact.
And Loughborough in the second half of the year have been really immense. With Emily Scarratt coming back, with their kicking options being able to kick both sides of the pitch: Scaz on one side and Katy [Daley-McLean] on the other. I was at full back and that was an absolute minefield. I never felt I was doing the right thing: the option I took always seemed to be the wrong thing. They would see me go one way then they would kick the other. They would read me, and I always felt I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Coming from England, they really know your game, and you know theirs…?
Even with that I couldn’t change what I did, and they would just split the field, put one person on one side and one person on the other. I guess we could drop the wingers more, but then they have the ability to move it quickly with Scaz and Katy so we could get punished there. We did fine that game mopping it up, but it was a real challenge.

And a really brutal game too?
It was, incredibly physical so we had to fill the front field because they were so physical, so it was sometimes no man’s land at the back.

Turning to England, what has it meant to you to be awarded a full-time professional contract?
Really good. I’ve been really fortunate to have had contracts since about 2014 in various formats of the game. I’m really lucky that I haven’t had to go out and find work. I knew that when I first got a contact how much it meant and being in a full-time programme accelerated my game massively. The first six months, I was just learning what it was like to be a professional and what it required. It wasn’t that there was loads more training, it was just the little extras that you forget about like doing extra analysis, time resting, making sure you are seeing your physio. It was the adminy stuff that was a little harder to adjust to. Those people who have just got contacts now are just now just about making the most of having them. It’s tough.

Particularly some of the young ones and they haven’t properly worked that much before and this is suddenly their job and adjusting to any job is difficult?
I think we can look across to men’s academies and see how players react having all that given to them. But what’s lucky with the girls is that they know this may be won’t last forever and they can’t just go to a different club. You are either being paid by England or you are not being paid by anyone, so you’ve got to make this count. You can’t have a poor couple of months as that’s your job on the line. You don’t just go to another club but for less money.

And Grand Slam champions too. How did that feel, and do you think that job on the line has anything to do with that performance?
No. I don’t think people are playing with fear. I think the work is done with the Prem clubs and that’s where if you haven’t done it with Prem you are not going to be able to put a performance in at England. These girls aren’t playing out of their skins because of a contact, they are playing out of their skins each week because they know that the coaches are going to see it regardless. You don’t have a bad game and no one sees it because the coach wasn’t there. There is always an element of accountability, but it would be dangerous to think the girls are playing with that weight on their backs. The style we are playing we do look very free. It’s not just a surprise when we come to camp and the level has been raised because it has been raised at club level as well. I don’t think there’s that difference between so when you come from club to England it’s ‘oh my god it’s England training’: I treat it the same as I treat a Sarries’ session so that’s incredibly positive.

You’ve got the Super Series next. How do you feel about heading off to San Diego?

Yes. There’s a bit of training to be done before that. Obviously, we’ve had a fantastic year under our belts so far: had a clean sweep with England with some comprehensive wins, good looking wins and achieving what we wanted to achieve and ticking a lot boxes in terms of what we wanted to do and be able to move on with that. Now we’ve had the chance to put the Tyrrells season aside and solely focus on England duties over the summer I think that will be really positive that we can really put some groundwork. Obviously the Six Nations and Autumns are bookended by the club rugby so it will give us a good month and a half to train as England players.

Did you play under Rob Cain [now USA Rugby Women’s’ Head Coach] at Saracens?
I did that year that we won. I speak to him whenever I see him and spend lots of time talking to him. I really like his approach. He speaks so highly of what is going on in the USA and what the girls are doing and the different challenges that they have. They are opposition on the up and coming as they have been for years now. I think what it requires is someone like Rob to have that understanding of what it requires as a whole product, understanding of players, where they come from and how they approach the game. I think he’s one of the best at that, learning about players and applying the lessons elsewhere.

You sadly missed the Rio Olympics injured when you were in the 7s programme. How tempted would you be at a crack at Tokyo if that was an option?
Not at all. I have played since I was six years old. When I was playing with lads and at school, I was playing two games a week, week in week out and how I play best is playing regularly. What 7s didn’t do for me was give me enough of that game time and that’s where I struggled. That’s partly why I feel I am playing some of my best rugby ever because I usually get 80 minutes week in week out with Saracens. If I have a poor performance one week, I can quickly rectify it. That was my biggest struggle with playing 7s was that I couldn’t make amends quick enough and there was so much time in between. I think I’m better as a 15s player.

So, your focus is on 2021 and the World Cup in New Zealand?
Yes, 100% sole focus on that. No eyes elsewhere.

What are your summer plans after the Summer Series?
We’ve got four weeks off so lots of down time. It will take the first two week to rest and recuperate and probably get over a bit of jetlag and the accumulation of the whole season. A sigh of relief. Try not to think about rugby for a while. I will be excited about the new season. Preseason starts in July with the girls but we’re away so I don’t think we join them until mid-August with the first game may be three weeks after that. We’ll be carrying some fitness from the summer tour, so fitness won’t be an issue there. At the best of times preseason can be a pretty boring a bit tedious: it’s about running and more running and then a bit more running, so taking people’s mind of that big ‘oh my god, preseason’, which can be a scary word sometimes, so it’s about making it as much as possible.

It’s the third-year next year of the initial TP15s agreement and two titles already for Saracens. Are you or the club already thinking ahead to next year?
Yes, I think so. Wanting to start on the note we finished on and not wanting to lose that momentum. I’m mindful not to switch off from Saracens even though I’ve got a few months off. I want to think of new ideas, keep myself fresh and put myself in the best of shape to play for them. I think everyone’s excited. I think because we won it’s easy to be excited. If you lost you could feel frustrated and want to right some wrongs, but I think we’re on such high, such a crest of a wave that you just want to keep that going and it would be so terrible if we didn’t build on that momentum we’ve already got. So, I just think to keep that excitement and thirst there. Don’t forget what we’ve done, ride that and make the most of that, but definitely not resting on our laurels and I don’t think there’s any danger of that.

Thank you to Abdullah at Saracens Women for arranging this interview.