Full-back Sarah McKenna balanced style and substance during England Women’s Grand Slam – and is doing the same for Saracens in the Tyrrells Premier 15s
Sarah McKenna enjoying standout season for Saracens and England
With the nickname ‘MC’ and her England profile highlighting an interest in DJing, you would likely surmise that Sarah McKenna is a big music fan. As it happens, the DJ references stem from the fact she was the first person in the squad to have Spotify and these days she is more likely to listen to podcasts or talk radio in any downtime as a change from the music at training.
Yet while McKenna has not mastered the art of mixing tracks together, she has discovered how to combine her natural flair with a more pragmatic approach on the pitch. Helping England to lift a Six Nations Grand Slam, she showed both style and substance from full-back – but it has taken her a while to find that balance.
McKenna made her England debut back in 2011 but was only capped intermittently until this season. When she was first coming onto the Test stage, she was competing with the likes of Danielle Waterman for a place and felt she needed to produce something special to stand out.
When she mentions players like Carlos Spencer and Quade Cooper as those she loved to watch growing up because they’ve “got that bit of magic”, it’s easy to see where McKenna sourced her inspiration.
However, it’s her time as backs coach at Old Albanian Saints – the club’s women’s team – that has helped her hit the best form of her career.
“Nolli (Waterman) is a fantastic player and to play better than her you had to do something outstanding, so I’d try to change the game when I should have continued the game plan,” says the 30-year-old Saracen, who has also played at fly-half and centre.
“I was trying to say, ‘Look at me, look at me’ but you don’t have to do that. That’s something I’ve learnt from coaching.
“I love coaching and the players push me and my understanding, which is really fun. It’s been good to see things from the coaching side. I was probably killing plays and now I’m a coach I can see why I was reprimanded at the time.
“It’s made me more sensible. I was trying to be a maverick and get noticed before; now it’s a little bit thrown in here and there. That balance is part of learning.
“People might think I’m new to the scene but I’ve been on the scene for a long time and finding the balance has probably come from maturity. Without learning when I was younger I’d never have got here. It’s just about form, not chasing form.”
McKenna pays tribute to Giselle Mather for imparting key basics as England U20 coach and more recently regular game time in 15s has played a part. Previously in the sevens set-up, McKenna struggled with the lulls between tournaments. Now she is starting most weeks for Saracens or England – helping the Tyrrells Premier 15s final – and, as a full-time professional, has the time to work on her skills and conditioning too.
In the Six Nations she mixed her game well, whether launching attacks in the wide channels or cutting through the middle as a first or second receiver. She was the mainstay in the back three, with Jess Breach, Abby Dow and Kelly Smith on the wings. The foursome illustrated their attacking threat by scoring 13 tries between them in the five Tests of the championship.
McKenna, who has been nominated for England Women’s Player of the Year at the RPA Awards, highlights her game understanding as her biggest strength, saying: “It’s my reading of the game – when to do what, when to come into the line and the variety that comes with that.
“Against Ireland I scored a try on the edge. Against France I was running off Katy’s (Daley-Mclean) shoulder on a short ball. It’s about being unpredictable so sides don’t know what you’re going to do.
“As a whole (back three), we sure in what we’re doing. Not in a drill sense, but we’re not scared to call for the ball. We look to get the ball on the outside and work off the wing as well, not just expect it on the edge. It’s really exciting.”
With that all-action style, McKenna favours more relaxing activities off the pitch: walking her dog, Bertie, a Jack Russell poodle she describes as “the love of my life”; arts and crafts – she made 15 wreaths for friends and family last Christmas and has made a beehive for her mum; and podcasts like House of Rugby.
Life wasn’t always so chilled, though. Before being contracted as a professional player, she had an ill-fated stint as an apprentice electrician. Of the two stories she tells of that time, one features accidentally stamping a hole in the ceiling after stirring some sleeping wasps and the other involves being trapped in a crawl space as part of a prank.
Now her career is about punching holes in opposition defences and breaking into space – and she’s doing an impressive job on both counts this season.
This article originally appeared in the May 2019 edition of Rugby World.
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