CASTRES, FRANCE – Much has been made in the press about the concussion suffered by Wales’s George North during their Six Nations opener against England, but one player who knows only too well the realities of a head knock is legendary England women’s team winger Kat Merchant.
She took time out to chat to Rugby Wrap Up about winning the World Cup and coaching, but there was no escaping the subject of concussion – after all, it’s what brought her career to a premature end.
A staunch advocate of World Rugby’s Recognise & Remove campaign to raise awareness of concussion in the sport, Merchant said: “I know what it’s like as a player. You get a knock and you don’t want to come off – that’s the honest truth. If you’re in a tight game, you’ve got a bit of a knock and feel a bit dizzy but you just don’t really think about it. You don’t think ‘right, I need to come off’.
“I should imagine George North in that game didn’t want to come off, it’s England against Wales in Wales! He wants to play.
“That’s not the fault of the player, it’s just how it is.”
When asked how it felt when she was told she couldn’t play any longer, Merchant said: “I sort of knew it was coming, to be honest. I’d received quite a bad one before the World Cup and I was lucky in a way to be back in time to be able to play. I knew I was on borrowed time.”
While agreeing that having a TMO in place and the concussion protocol are great leaps forward, Merchant thinks more can be done to prevent concussion. “Educating the players would really help,” she said.
“Everybody says ‘oh it’s one of those things’. I had 11 concussions, some of my early ones I’d feel okay afterwards, but then the two that I had were a year apart, they set me back for maybe three or four months.
“I didn’t feel right. Mentally things are a lot more taxing and physically every time I tried to train I’d get another setback. I don’t want players to ever get to that point, but that’s what made me become a lot more serious about it.”
Merchant received a mini concussion during the first few minutes of the 2014 World Cup match against Samoa, and felt unwell enough to ask for a sub. Touching on what is arguably the biggest unspoken issue surrounding player injuries in rugby, she said: “I said to one of the girls ‘I hope you don’t think I’m a wimp’, and she said, ‘Kat, it just shows that you’re brave’.”
Courage is something the Worcester Ladies and Chesham Stags coach has by the bucketload, as anyone who has seen her in action will know. But what fans may not know is rugby wasn’t Merchant’s first sport of choice.
“I actually did gymnastics,” she said, “But I got a little bit too tall for it, so I was looking for another sport. I tried tennis but wasn’t that great, and tried a few different things. Then my dad made me go and play rugby! He gave me a nudge in the direction of Worcester Under-16s.
“Because of the gymnastics I was quite strong, so actually I was quite good. I didn’t look back after the first session – from then on it was twice a week every week and every Sunday I loved it.”
That was the start of a 15-year career at the club. Even moving to London didn’t stop Merchant from playing for the club she loved. “Worcester was where I really feel like I belonged, rugby-wise,” she said.
“I would always travel back and play with them. We always kind of muddled through, we were always at the bottom end of the table, but then three years ago we won the Premiership. That was such a rewarding thing, it just felt that everything Worcester is about was achieved. it was really really nice.”
It wasn’t just the club’s fans who got to see her astonishing talent, as she got her England call-up in 2005. When asked about her debut, she said: “Oh it was amazing. I was 19 and just wasn’t expecting it really. I was so nervous.”
Merchant found herself on the bench for the game against Ireland, and thought she would never make it onto the pitch: “There was 10 minutes to go and we were beating Ireland, and I thought I’m not going to go on’ but then I heard, ‘Kat, warm up’, and my heart was going crazy.
“I had to make a tackle straight away, but then the first time I touched the ball, I ended up scoring! It was a two-on-one with the full back, she passed me this ball and it just felt like it was in slow motion. All I was thinking was ‘CATCH THIS BALL!’ and then just ran in for a try. From that I got the nickname ‘One-Touch’”.
Unfortunately, not every game in England colours ended on such a high. Merchant recalled the pain of losing out on three World Cup competitions – both in the Sevens and the 15s. So, when last year’s competition got under way, like her teammate and fellow Chesham Stags coach Rocky Clark, she was far from sure of victory.
“It was the least confident I’d been going into a tournament, and I think that made us more grounded, knowing that we really really had to work for it to make it happen.” she said.
“We had a team meeting the night before the final and I remember thinking ‘we can do it’. Nobody said anything about winning, but it felt special. When the final whistle went, I cried the most I’ve ever cried. I don’t cry, I never cry, it’s just not me, but I was just beside myself. I didn’t know how to feel: relieved, happy – and going through it with that group of people as well… a lot of us had done the 2010 World Cup together and we knew what it felt like to lose. To be on the flip side of that was amazing.”
Since her retirement as a player, Merchant has been focusing on coaching Worcester Ladies, but as she explains, it’s not been as easy for her as she’d imagined. “Oh it’s so frustrating!” she said. “When I coach men, it’s fine. I’ve never played for that team, I have no attachment in that way, except as a coach. Watching Worcester, so many times I think ‘right, I’m going to play!’ and I can’t.
“I say ‘I just want you to do it like this!’ I’ve played for that team at that level so in that sense it’s harder. I should imagine next season it will be a bit easier and the season after that. I think I need to gradually change my mindset from player to coach!”
Although she may be missed on the pitch, she’s still very much in the game, and the future looks bright for Merchant. Worcester finished fourth in the Premiership, and who knows, her particular kind of grit and determination could be just what the England outfit need – should the job of coach ever be offered to her.
As for the women’s game in general, what would the legendary One-Touch like to see?
“I’d love to see the 15s game go professional” she said. “It would be great if the RFU would be one of the first to do it, just to lead the way. No one else has done it, why not be the first? I think that would be brilliant.”
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