Katy Daley-Mclean had a couple of weeks to get used to life as a former England player before news of her international retirement broke on the Friday before Christmas.

She had discussed the decision with England coach Simon Middleton, the RFU’s head of women’s performance, Nicky Ponsford, and had also alerted her team-mates.

Daley-Mclean was content to be leaving on her own terms, to spend more time with her young family, but none of that prepared her for the deluge of well-wishes that greeted the announcement.

“The reaction was totally overwhelming,” she told World Rugby.

“From the rugby community, the amount of people that messaged me was just totally overwhelming and I was pretty amazed by it all.”

'I don’t want to be that player'

Legend is a word that gets thrown around, but the cap certainly fits Daley-Mclean, who leaves the test arena as England’s third-most capped player having represented her country 116 times.

Her test career spanned more than 13 years and encompassed three Rugby World Cup finals, the second of which ended in glory as she captained England to the title at France 2014.

It must have been tempting to hold on for a fourth Rugby World Cup, and another tour of New Zealand. But the lure of spending precious time with her daughter, Addie, proved decisive.

“When I sat down and looked at the calendar about how much I'd be away, that was a huge factor for me,” Daley-Mclean said. 

“But, also just how my training nature has changed as well. I think it made me have a long, hard look at myself and what I want to do. 

“I've always been extremely competitive and as soon as that edge wasn't there anymore and I didn't really want to be getting up and doing running sessions [that was it], especially as in a team sport you're accountable to your team-mates. 

“For me, that made the decision really easy because I was like, 'I can't continue'. I don't want to be that player, I don't want to be that athlete. 

“So, yes, it was probably a hard decision to action. But, actually the decision itself, once I kind of identified my reasons and how I was feeling towards it, it was quite easy.”

Less than a fortnight before her international retirement was confirmed Daley-Mclean was selected at fly-half in the World Rugby Women’s 15s Team of the Decade, in association with Mastercard.

It may come as a surprise to those who watched her steer England to eight Women’s Six Nations Grand Slams that the playmaker only truly felt comfortable in the white number 10 shirt once she had turned 30. By which time she was already a Rugby World Cup winner.

“By the time I was probably about 30, I was really comfortable in what the roles and responsibilities of a 10 are,” Daley-Mclean explained.

“[Prior to that] I played each moment more so. As a 10, actually, it's about the whole picture. It's almost about the feel of the game and almost like the story of what's going on. 

“Because rugby's a pretty simple game. It's about momentum and go forward, and if you have those, it's generally a much easier game to play. 

“And, I think it was later on in my career when I started to see the impact of what you were doing as a 10 and the differences. And… the game almost felt that it slowed down a little bit. 

“It's kind of like watching it in slow motion. You could almost see what was going to happen next, potentially, like that game of chess.”

England journey

By her own admission, Daley-Mclean enjoyed a “perfect start” to her international career, during England’s 60-0 defeat of Scotland on the opening weekend of the Women’s Six Nations 2007 in St Albans. 

Emerging as a second-half replacement alongside fellow future captain, Sarah Hunter, the fly-half settled any nerves she might have felt with a late touchline conversion.

“My mum, dad and little sister were in the crowd. I think the biggest sense was of relief just to get on,” Daley-Mclean said. “Geoff Richards was head coach at the time and he certainly didn't give caps out for no reason.”

Daley-Mclean’s first real setback in an England shirt came at RWC 2010, when the hosts were edged out by New Zealand in the final at Twickenham Stoop, losing a fiercely contested match 13-10.

“In the end, to be so close to winning something, it was really, really hard to take,” she said. “But obviously, it makes you come back better and stronger and you learn a lot of lessons.”

That experience, however difficult at the time, proved invaluable to the Red Roses four years later when Daley-Mclean led a rejuvenated England team back to the summit of women’s rugby.

“That group had been on such a journey post-2010,” she said. 

“But also we’d been to New Zealand in 2013 and been pumped 3-0, we'd then lost that game [against France] in the Six Nations. Just to finally put that World Cup loss to bed, I think I spoke at the time in 2014 that for me that win wasn't just about us, it was about everybody before us. 

“And, that was the case. We tried so many times previously, I think three times before, to win a World Cup and had been beaten. So actually, for me, it was about our England family, about all the Red Roses. 

“And, yeah, by far my proudest moment lifting that trophy with that group of staff and players — it was immense.”

Embarking on a new challenge

Looking to the future, Daley-Mclean feels motivated by the opportunity she has at Sale Sharks, to develop as a coach and help build a player base in England’s north-west.

She is also looking forward to watching the Red Roses develop as a fan, and is confident the number 10 shirt is in good hands with Zoe Harrison and Helena Rowland chief among those vying for possession of it.

So, could Daley-Mclean one day return to international rugby as a coach? “Simon Middleton watch out!” she joked.

“I try not to but sometimes I get excited. I’m like, ‘Right, what could I do with this?’ But, like I touched on, I literally have so much to learn and I'm really excited about it. 

“For me it's great, I love challenges and this is a new challenge to get my teeth into and to really learn about the culture of it as well, and about how you drive performance teams from the other side. 

“I've always been on the playing side, so actually to learn all the other bits will be great.”

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