From Rio to Rotorua, the England fly-half reflects on the highs and lows of more than a decade at the top

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Katy Daley-Mclean’s Life In Pictures

Katy Daley-Mclean, 34, is a Test centurion who led England to a World Cup triumph in 2014. She has recently taken on a role as player-coach at new Premier 15s side Sale Sharks and is aiming to be a key part of England’s RWC 2021 bid in New Zealand.

Here she looks back on key moments from her career to date…

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2008 – Early days

“This was against an Irish President’s XV and while it was capped for us, it wasn’t for them, so we sang the anthem in the tunnel before the game. We used to play a lot of one-off games like this leading into Christmas.

“I was first capped in 2007, so I must have been around 22 here. I’d only had one start at ten in 2007 so this would have been a nice opportunity to play there.

“There were probably less than 100 people watching. The change in the game over the past 12 years has been huge, but I wouldn’t change how I started my career. I’ve benefited from experiencing both the totally amateur and playing games like this to what it is now.”

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2010 – Heartbreak 

“This picture typifies 2010 for me. I genuinely thought we were going to win that World Cup. I naively assumed that by working hard and doing what people tell you to do, you’d get the result.

“The final was at the Stoop in front of 13,000 and when the Black Ferns did the haka the crowd sang Swing Low – we’d never experienced anything like that in a women’s game.

“The score was 13-10 to New Zealand so it was really tight. It was the ultimate heartbreak and I just couldn’t understand how it happened. Even in the 78th or 79th minute when we were in our 22, I believed we’d go the length and score under the posts to win.

“It’s the hardest experience I’ve ever faced. I thought, ‘I’m not sure this is for me’. I loved the sport but I genuinely could have walked away and just played socially. I talk about that with school kids – it’s the choices you make.”

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2011 – Chilling out

“I had to hold the Six Nations trophy while we were walking and for some reason I held it up in front of me. I don’t know why they didn’t say, ‘Just casually hold it by your side’! I’d never done anything like this before and it was freezing.

“I’d taken over from Catherine Spencer as England captain so this was my first Six Nations launch. It was a bit awkward as we were like a tag-on for the guys and it felt like they were trying to sell us to the crowd, but it was good to experience it. And it’s definitely better now.”

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2011 – Quality Street

“I’ve got a great relationship with Streety (former England head coach Gary Street). He’s coached me since the academy days at Broadstreet, so I’ve known him a long time.

“He made me captain after we lost the 2010 World Cup and I was following on from Catherine Spencer. I was so awkward those first couple of years as captain – I wasn’t sure who I was and what my leadership style should be. Do I replicate what Catherine did even though it’s not me? It was amazing lifting the trophy, though, after a Grand Slam.

“Gary had amazing faith in me as captain and I didn’t want to disappoint him. I had a shocker in the autumn of 2011 against New Zealand. We were playing them three times and in one I was dreadful. There were mumblings of whether I should play again, but Gary backed me and then I had one of my best games ever.

“He really helped me grow and find my feet. On the pitch I was fine; it was the small stuff off the pitch and dealing with players.”

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2013 – Twick fix

“It doesn’t get any better than running out at Twickenham for me. This was the autumn before the World Cup and we pummelled France. That year had been horrific – we’d come sixth at the Sevens World Cup, then I was in school (teaching) for three days, including a parents’ evening, and then we went to New Zealand and lost the series 3-0. I was like half a person after that but we got firmly back into 15s in November.

“There’s so much discussion about whether we should play at Twickenham after the boys or not. It’s a tough one. You go to France and play in an 18,000 stadium or fill Sandy Park and that probably gives more value. People are interested and want to be there. But as a kid you still dream of playing at Twickenham. I don’t think it needs to be removed, but it’s nice to move games around too. The important thing is games are still accessible – that’s our biggest selling point and young kids can meet us after games.

“The growth of the game is incredible. From right back at the beginning with 100 people watching to 10,500 at Sandy Park. It’s a credit to the game and shows there is an appetite for it.

“I don’t believe the arguments of people saying nobody is interested in women’s sport. That attitude is outdated now – look at the people in Exeter who came out to watch us. It’s about making it accessible and challenging attitudes to women’s sport.”

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2014 – Huddle up 

“This was in the Six Nations against Ireland. We’d lost to France in the opening game so it was all about getting momentum ahead of the World Cup.

“I did a similar talk during the semi-final. One of my strengths – the girls might disagree – is getting stuck in and Sky had to apologise for the language!

“By 2013-14, I was more sure of myself as a person and working with Sunts (Sarah Hunter) we had a good captain and vice-captain relationship that ticked all the boxes. She’d do more off-field stuff and I’d say people had to get on board, not fight against us. The bad cop suits me!”

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2014 – World champions!

“This makes me want to cry a little bit. So much went on that year – beaten by France away, staff changes, Sophie Hemming got a nasty injury, the stress of sorting the sevens contracts, so World Cup preparation wasn’t ideal. But if you could bottle success it would be that moment.

“As for the final against Canada, it was close, then Scaz (Emily Scarratt) scored. I remember looking at the scoreboard with 78 minutes on the clock and knew we’d done it even if we conceded.

“I’d done so many interviews about being bridesmaids, could England ever lift the trophy, did we have the mentality to win etc, so to do it was amazing.

“We had a good night, too. After the function, we went to a bar in Paris with all our families and enjoyed it as a squad. Alex Payne from Sky Sports came out the next morning to do a big piece on us and we hadn’t been to bed!”

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2014 – Dress for success 

“This was flipping cool – we got to drive into Buckingham Palace! I took my mum and dad, my little sister and my nana along. They had to wait three hours to see me (get an MBE) as 99 people were getting various awards. It was great to share it with my family and then we went for afternoon tea at the Waldorf.

“Princess Anne asked about what was coming up for us and how games had gone in the season. There’s so much etiquette – don’t offer hand, don’t turn your back – that I was worried I’d do something wrong, but I survived.

“I don’t wear a lot of dresses but I’d gone shopping for a dress with my mum, the cardigan was from a girl I worked with and I had a fascinator in my hair!

“I met some fascinating people – a lady involved in developing a drug for cancer research, a lady who did make-up for the stars, someone who’d set up a B&B in Londonderry and added £100,000s to the economy.”

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2016 – Road to Rio 

“I was in great nick then! You think about what you want to get out of your career – go to a World Cup, win a World Cup, be England captain – but the Olympics wasn’t on my radar. I was 30 then and thought I was too old, it was a kids’ game, but then we got sevens contracts.

“I moved to Surrey full-time and I really struggled. I didn’t enjoy it, so I thought of just playing 15s and going back to school (as a teacher). I spoke to Midds (coach Simon Middleton) and he told me to stick it out until the summer, then Richie Pugh came in and changed my position from fly-half to hooker, which suited my game. I played more tournaments and was featuring in the first team, then selection came out and I was going to the Olympics.

“We hadn’t mixed with different sports before so it was great to do that. I met Andy Murray in the lift, Louis Smith and loads of others.

“We’d beaten Canada heavily in the group but they beat us in the third-fourth play-off. Things in sevens happen so quickly, you sometimes can’t do anything about it. It was such a tough loss.

“Everything got wrapped up in coming fourth – we’d gone all that way and come away with nothing. Looking back now it’s something to be proud of, but at the time it was disappointing because we knew we could beat them – we’d done it two days earlier.”

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2017 – Seeing red

“This was brutal – I’d never experienced anything like that. I’d come off the bench (against Italy) and wanted to make an impact. There was never any intent or malice in the incident. When it got reviewed I thought maybe it’s a yellow, but then he pulled out red (for a dangerous tackle).

“It was a massive change in the game being refereed for safety and it’s made me more aware of the responsibility you have.

“I had to go to a hearing, which is such a stressful experience. I had a QC defending me and Midds did character references. There were four people on the panel and they slowed it down and played it frame by frame. I was given six weeks, reduced to three for good behaviour.

“I cried silent tears throughout and then sobbed afterwards. It was awful – I came back and said that we had to brief all the girls about hearings.”

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2017 – Peak performance

“This is up there as one of my favourite games. We won 29-21 and it was a really good day at the office. I’d never beaten New Zealand in New Zealand before – it hadn’t been done since 2001 – and I feel it’s one of the best games I’ve had.

“We were in a really ropey hotel next to the British & Irish Lions’ luxury – we’d go to their hotel for food and then come back to our little rooms – but playing before a Lions game (in Rotorua), especially the way we played, was an amazing experience.

“It didn’t help us in winning the World Cup. That 2017 final defeat was hard but it wasn’t like 2010, when we should have beaten them. New Zealand played better than us in 2017 and looking back, while there are a couple of things I’d do differently, I’m not sure it would have changed the result.

“Playing in 2021 is definitely a goal for me. I used to look at four-year blocks but now I look at tournament blocks. At some point I won’t be performing where I want to be at and I’d rather be in control of that than get a tap on the shoulder. I don’t want people saying, ‘She used to be great but look at her now’.”

 

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2018 – Making a century 

“A great day. Apart from it being very wet, it was the perfect occasion – we played well (beating USA 57-5), I got to walk out with my niece, my dad presented me with my 100th cap, Jonny Wilkinson sent me a video. It was really good to have my family as part of it as they’ve been instrumental in my career.

“When I won my 50th cap I was dreadful, so I was worried it would be the same for my 100th, but it couldn’t have been any more perfect.

“I never thought I’d get to 100; I only started to think about it when I was on 92-93.”

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2019 – Slam-tastic

“This never gets boring! To continue to play a part in winning trophies like this is great. There will come a time when I’m on the bench more or not involved, so these moments are now more precious to me than ten years ago as the end is much closer.

“Look at the faces here after last year’s Six Nations win – Marlie Packer, Sarah Hunter… What it’s all about. It makes me very proud to see what we’ve achieved.

“I don’t have anything from my career in a frame at home. I might eventually but at the moment I do a lot of talks in primary schools and those things (medals and jerseys) are too valuable to show people when you’re talking.”

This article originally appeared in the March 2020 edition of Rugby World magazine.

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