By Will Moulton
Speaking to Kay Wilson, it can be easy to forget that she is a world-class international rugby player.
Or should that be was.
At the age of just 26 the England winger has announced her immediate retirement from the sport, swapping the thrill of chasing an oval shaped ball for a life of sun, sea and sand in Australia’s ‘Harbour City’ – Sydney.
While she may have come across as a tough, steely-faced, try-scoring assassin on the pitch – leading to the creation of an alter-ego named ‘Karen’ by her team-mates – away from it she could not be more pleasant, engaging or articulate. Our chat for SportSpiel felt less like an interview, more like a friendly chat and I loved it.
Wilson’s decision certainly came as a shock to many, myself included. It even left me with a tinge of disappointment knowing that I may never get to see her scoring tries for fun again.
But that is the mark of a top level player going out at the top; they leave you wanting more.
It wasn’t just fans of the game who were gutted to see her go either. The outpouring of love from her international team-mates on social media was something very special to witness and came as a huge surprise to the player herself.
Wilson said: “It was so nice. I’m not going to lie – I had a little cry!
“It was so lovely. I just thought it would be announced and nothing would really happen and I’d be ok with that.
“But then I saw all these messages and it was really touching. It was so nice to hear from all sorts of people but when it comes from your team-mates as well, who have been with you through the really good times and also the bad times, it’s so nice to hear and to read. It was genuinely really lovely.”
The past few months have certainly provided Wilson with many highs and lows, starting with a stunning Six Nations in which England won their first Grand Slam since 2012 while the player herself made national headlines with a record seven tries in one game against Scotland.
Shortly after the Red Roses moved atop the world rankings for the first time ever with a stunning victory over New Zealand in a sodden Rotorua, before they embarked on a quest to become the first team aside from the Black Ferns to win successive World Cups.
Ultimately it wasn’t to be though as the Kiwis got their revenge in a cracking final at the end of a fantastic tournament. But despite the crushing loss, England also came away with plenty of good memories.
They cruised through their pool, with Wilson bagging four tries in the first half of their opening game against Spain, including latching onto the end of an outrageous crossfield kick from Katy McLean, before overcoming France in one of the most intense matches ever witnessed.
It was also a landmark tournament in terms of coverage, with ITV showing each of England’s games live before hosting the final on its flagship channel during Saturday evening primetime, something which provided Wilson with some consolation after finishing second.
The former Richmond star recalled: “It was heartbreaking, it really, really was. It took me a while to be in a place to talk about the final.
“But one of the positive things that came out of it was the number of people who came up to me and said they’d seen the final and were so proud of what we did.
“It put women’s rugby even more on the map. Hopefully the next World Cup will be even better and there will be even more people watching it. We just hope that we’ve inspired even more girls to get involved.
“I never thought I’d be Saturday night TV but there we were! I can’t believe it. We actually got moved from ITV4 to ITV, it was crazy. It’s great for the sport.”
Wilson steps away from the sport boasting some incredible statistics – 49 caps, 32 tries, two Six Nations ‘Grand Slams’ and one World Cup victory. Not bad for someone who did not even think they would ever be lucky enough to play for their country.
But there’s more to her than that, for she is also a trendsetter, a new breed of professional sportswoman this country has needed for so long having been awarded a sevens contract straight after leaving university.
Despite all the furore surrounding the awarding of full-time contracts to the seven-a-side players over the 15s outfit, Wilson believes that having professional female rugby players in any format is a huge improvement on where the game was just a handful of years ago.
“Women’s rugby since I’ve been in the sport has changed so much and the fact that we’re talking about professional contracts is crazy to think,” she enthused.
“When I first started playing international rugby six or seven years ago that wasn’t even an option so the fact that we now have full-time contracts, sevens has just been in the Olympic Games and the Commonwealths are just around the corner, it’s really exciting.
“Not just for rugby but also for women’s sport, it’s growing and it’s really exciting to watch. And especially now I’m out of it I’m really excited to watch it grow.”
Another thing that struck me about Wilson during our conversation was just how humble she is. She always talked about achievements in terms of the team, stating her try-scoring prowess was simply down to her being able to capitalise on their hard work.
Indeed the only time she really talked about her own game was to criticise her international debut performance against the USA, admitting she was frustrated because she didn’t score.
But watching Wilson play it was obvious she was supremely talented. She was the complete winger, boasting natural speed, agility and power and, most importantly, incredible intelligence to know where to be at the right time to score tries.
She is leaving the sport at the peak of her powers and we will only remember her for the fantastic player that she was.
While it’s sad to see her go, it’s also good to know that the decision was completely her own and not caused by injury or a decline in form as is the case for so many great athletes.
Having achieved so much in her career, Wilson now wants to do what many young adults want and travel the world, soak in other cultures and make the most of life, although she did tease that we may not have seen the last of her in a rugby jersey.
She said: “I’ve always had it in me that I wanted to live abroad and that was part of my decision when I came to retiring in that if I don’t do it now I never will.
“I’ve been very fortunate in my rugby career and I’ve achieved more than I ever thought I would but I was just ready to move on, go abroad and see what that has to offer.
“The surfboard and BBQ life is calling! I’m not sure I’ll be rushing back to playing rugby at the moment. I’ve enjoyed not having to commit to things and doing what I want to do. You never know, I’ll never say never, but at the moment I have no intentions of going back.”