Inspirational, strong leadership, humility and passionate are all qualities that have been spoken about Rochelle Clark over the last few weeks as the prop has written her name into English rugby history books.
The 35-year-old surpassed Rugby World Cup 2003 winner Jason Leonard’s mark of 114 tests to become England’s most capped player when she ran out at UCD Bowl in Dublin last Sunday, an occasion she marked with a try in the Red Roses 12-10 victory over Ireland.
That appearance also drew her level with her Worcester Valkyries coach and former Scotland captain Donna Kennedy’s tally of 115 so, should she come off the bench against long-time rivals New Zealand she will become the most-capped women’s player in history.
Rocky, as she is universally known, admits achieving the milestone against a side she has faced many times, suffering both heartache over defeats in Women’s Rugby World Cup finals and great joy at beating the Black Ferns on a few occasions.
“I think it would be really special because they are our old rivals,” admitted Clark. “I’ve played against them many times and to hopefully run out on home turf against them will be extra special.”
Back when Clark began her international career, though, she never imagined in her wildest dreams that she would be rewriting the record books more than a decade later.
“It was all about trying to get my next cap to be honest (at the beginning) so I’ve never thought I’m going to try and go for so many caps, it just happens one game at a time and then it’s just focusing on the next game.
The unsung hero
“Having such passion and hunger still at my age, the youngsters keep my young which is good and I can help them with my experience. It’s amazing, fantastic, to be a role model to these youngsters and hopefully inspiring future generations.
“I just want to show people that they can reach a goal, you’ve just got to work really hard and be committed to what you’re doing and achieve your goals.”
It was perhaps fitting that Clark, a Women’s Rugby World Cup winner with England in 2014, was the one to surpass Leonard’s record as the prop was her childhood idol and a player she hugely respected.
“For me, he was the unsung hero. He’s the same position as me so firstly that was easy to look up to him. He was a strong ball carrier and is really nice off the pitch.
“His commitment to the game and how passionate he was. How committed he was to Harlequins was a real key quality that I thought was pretty awesome so for me I've tried to base my career on that too.”
Leonard sent her a message ahead of the match with France when she equalled his tally, leaving her “quite emotional and with a tear in her eye”, while Clark admits the subject of surpassing Kennedy had come up in conversation between the two of them.
“A few months ago before it sort of came closer, she said she wouldn’t want it (the record) to go to anyone else which is really nice. She’s my club coach and she’s been an inspiration to me all through my career. Having her as my coach and a friend, it’s nice to have her support and hand over the baton.”
England fans need not worry, though, because Clark has no intention of hanging up the boots anytime soon, not with a World Cup in Ireland next year on the horizon or when she’s having so much fun on the pitch.
“I’ll probably keep playing until they kick me out! I think you’ll find me on some rugby pitch when I’m 60 trying to get around! I’m loving playing for England at the moment and I’m playing some of my best rugby so I can’t see me hanging up the boots yet.
Memories - past, present and future
“Age is just a number to me, I feel better than I did eight years ago. It’s just about making sure you’re in the best condition you can be and when you’re enjoying the rugby and playing well I just think you’re a long time retired so why would you stop?”
Clark may be coming into the twilight years of her international career just as England prepare to hand out professional contracts for 15s players in January, but she wouldn’t give up the memories she’s accumulated over the years to be starting out now.
“I don’t think I’d swap it, because what I’ve been through I think it has made me more hungry and passionate than ever. I wouldn’t have had all of these grand slam wins under my belt, I would have achieved 100 odd caps, I wouldn’t have won the World Cup.
“For me none of that is worth swapping and I’ve been really pleased to be a part of helping the game change and been in that era that has made the transition.
“I have many special memories. The obvious answer is winning the World Cup final, the 30 seconds after the final once we’d won it. The huge relief and then realisation that we’d done it, many years hand gone into that and to finally get that win.
“The friends I’ve made all along the way, the big battles that I’ve had along the way. It’s all going to be awesome memories for many years to look back on and for the remains of my career I’m going to keep on making memories.”
"She has changed the game in such a way, through the way she plays, through the leadership she presents on the field, but also just through her personality and the character she has shown."
What’s special about Rocky?
One such friend is Maggie Alphonsi, who won her first cap at the same time as Clark back in 2003 and has nothing but praise for her fellow Women’s Rugby World Cup winner.
“What’s special about Rocky?” pondered Alphonsi at her induction to the World Rugby Hall of Fame in Rugby on Thursday.
“There’s so much I can say about her. She has changed the game in such a way, through the way she plays, through the leadership she presents on the field, but also just through her personality and the character she has shown.
“I remember getting my first cap the same time she got hers in 2003 and back then she was not the best of athletes, so if you fast forward to today and she has gone on to achieve so much and she’s still as motivated as she was back in 2003.
“To beat first the legend Jason Leonard in his cap tally and to be in line to beat Donna Kennedy’s tally as well is an amazing thing.
“But what I think is even more amazing about her is that she could go on to play for another 20 or 30 caps if she wanted to. I imagine, though, that she’s working towards 2017 with the hope that England can retain that World Cup.”