When Simon Middleton calls his new Red Roses squad together to prepare for the 2018-9 season, there will be four very familiar faces missing. Two of them have graced the white shirt for a remarkable fifteen years: Danielle (Nolli) Waterman and Rochelle (Rocky) Clark seem to have been England players since the dawn of time.
The other two, Kay Wilson and Isabelle (Izzy) Noel-Smith, were more surprising departures.
Each has a wonderful story of rugby success to tell – though they are far too modest to publicise their achievements unbidden.
‘One hell of an innings’ (Self-evaluation)
When Rocky Clark announced her intention to retire from international rugby at the end of July, heartfelt praise came from across the rugby world and from the highest quarters. Her statistical record alone is enough to draw gasps of disbelief: a colossal 137 caps and no fewer than 23 tries, all from the front row.
But her contribution to the game goes much further. She has been head coach of Chesham Stags for several seasons; that means sorting the men out as well as the women. It would be instructive but impossible to tot up the number of players who have been advised, coached and inspired by the best known prop in women’s rugby.
It’s nearly two years since she broke Jason Leonard’s seemingly unbreakable record of 114 England caps, also from the front row. She had already been honoured with the award of an MBE for her services to rugby, after helping her team to World Cup glory in 2014. Like several of her team-mates, she could at last shake off the burden of a string of defeats at the final hurdle of rugby’s greatest competition.
She is mindful of the targets facing England Women, above all another World Cup in 2021. She wants to be sure that the younger generation have sufficient time to bed in to play a full part in future success. Quite coincidentally, one of her old front-row buddies, Laura Keates, announces that she is now passed fit to resume duties after a lengthy lay-off.
Stories of Rocky’s taste in jokes can now safely be left to the memoirs of her fellow Red Roses.
‘I’m very driven’ (Self-estimation)
Quite astonishingly, Nolli Waterman can claim to have played for her country before Rocky Clark.
If proof is needed that the game is open to all shapes and sizes, she is it. First-time spectators at a game might well feel concern for this tiny figure facing up to a mighty opposition. The moment they see her fling herself into a try-saving tackle, they know their emotions were misplaced. She combines all the features required of an international full-back: able to kick when needed, fearless under the high ball, blessed with pace, aggression and quite outstanding footwork.
She carries her devotion to the game way beyond the pitch as one of its best ambassadors. A wry irony of the Autumn 2017 series against Canada was to see her have to shift from her usual No 15 shirt to No 11 or even No 14. The player to cause this major upheaval? The outstanding young prospect, Ellie Kildunne, who had benefited from coaching by the same Nolli Waterman at Hartpury College, Gloucestershire. ‘Please, Miss, how do you catch the ball?’ A rare example of tutor and pupil playing alongside one another for the same team at the highest level.
This pairing reached a memorable summit in the England-Wales game last February when Waterman collected a long kick on the half-way line and fed a 15-metre pass into midfield. From there, Kildunne set off on a run that led to one of the greatest tries of the recent 6 Nations’ programme.
In what turned out to be her last international season, Nolli gave the lie to the passing years. Her speed over the ground, her breathtaking stepping past bemused opponents and her ruthless tackling were the products of a player at the height of her powers. We can get a measure of her achievements when we read part of Simon Middleton’s assessment: ‘She’s what an England player should be. She’s incredibly skilful, incredibly athletic but more than anything she’s probably the bravest player I’ve ever seen on a rugby field and that’s men’s or women’s rugby.’
‘Have a face like a tomato!’ (Self-portrait)
If these two retirements were less than surprising – and the players have reassured their admirers that they’ll go on wearing club colours – the other two were far less predictable. Kay Wilson and Izzy Noel-Smith both debuted for England in 2011. Izzy, still only 29, announced her decision to stop playing back in April. She had two very good reasons: she had been offered a promotion at work and she was getting married.
Izzy was an outstanding back-row player who spent her first-class career with Bristol. She was immediately recognizable on the field: she describes herself on her twitter account as ‘Retired red-faced backrow for Bristol and England women’. Her happy-go-lucky nature disappeared as soon as the kick-off whistle went. From the jokey prankster she was transformed into a redoubtable tackler, spoiler and creator.
Like many of her fellows, she endured the ups-and-downs of a high-flying rugby career. After appearing regularly off the bench in the early 2010s, she found herself surplus to requirements during the pivotal World Cup year 2014. But that setback only strengthened her determination to regain a place in the national side. Suffice it to say that during the years 2016-7 she enjoyed an unbroken sequence of caps leading to a cherished appearance in the final of the World Cup in Belfast last summer.
How appropriate that the last gesture by the Red Roses against the Black Ferns (32-41) was a defiant try by Izzy. Her never-say-die spirit was never better exemplified.
‘This lassie can shift when she puts her mind to it’ (Scottish commentator 2014)
After the 2014 World Cup final in Paris, no fewer that six English combatants announced their retirement. For a long period after the 2017 Irish World Cup it looked as though all the Red Roses were minded to regather their forces for the 2021 campaign. Not even the exceptional quartet, Clark, Waterman, Tamara Taylor and Rachael Burford, who had completed four World Cups, were contemplating hanging up their boots.
Then the news broke that Kay Wilson had called time on her career. She was 26, and, as many commentators remarked, just moving into her very prime as an outstanding winger and all-round rugby player. She explained her thinking in interviews: she had always hankered after moving abroad to live and work for a lengthy period.
Rugby had been part of her life since the age of five. After playing alongside boys at two local clubs, she had to transfer to a club with a girls’ section. This was Dorking RFC. Her coaches there were mesmerised by the youngster’s abilities. ‘The best player of her age (13), male or female, I had ever seen,’ one was moved to claim. Her upward progress through the representative ranks was rapid and giddy. By the age of 19 she was not only playing for Richmond, the then leading Premiership club in the country, but heading the national try-scoring lists.
Still not 20, she made her debut for England against the USA on tour in Canada. With typical modesty, she feared she’d played poorly. Would she ever be asked back? Forty-nine caps later she could point to a World Cup win in Paris, two Grand Slams and 32 tries. Memorably they included a record-breaking seven against Scotland in her last season, followed by another four against Spain in the World Cup in Dublin. Kay is now enjoying life Sydney-side.
We shouldn’t exaggerate the parallels between these four outstanding players – temperamentally they are their own creatures – but they were all blessed with oodles of talent and surrendered many other pleasurable pursuits for the English cause. Each has helped in her own way to ensure that there is plenty of talent coming through to replace them wearing the Red Rose.
One marked divergence comes in their general attitude to rugby. For many elite players the game is all-encompassing. If they aren’t playing, they are training, coaching or spreading the good word. Nolli and Rocky fall four-square into that category. The two younger departures, Izzy and Kay, have a more nuanced approach. Rugby formed an immense part of their lives from childhood on; they and their parents made major sacrifices in building up to national recognition. But they knew there was another, wider world waiting beyond the touchline. Izzy was already a qualified teacher; Kay had made her mind up early in the 2016-7 season that it would be her very last.
Women’s rugby owes each one of this distinguished foursome a huge debt of gratitude.
These stats include some that may never be beaten:
Clark 137 caps 23 tries
Waterman 82 caps 47 tries
Wilson 49 caps 32 tries
Noel-Smith 42 caps 5 tries
Lead photo shows the Roses celebrating a win over New Zealand in New Zealand 2nd from the left between Harriet Millar Mills and Amy Cokayne is Rocky Clark, 6th from the left is Izzy Noel-Smith between Justine Lucas and Vicky Fleetwood
Many thanks to Izzy Noel-Smith for helping with photographs for this article.