The recent Premier 15s play-offs were memorable for several Army Rugby Union players, not least SSgt Sarah Mitchelson (RLC), who signed off from her extensive playing career after Wasps’ semi-final defeat to Harlequins in front of several thousand supporters at the Twickenham Stoop.
Regardless of the result, it was a fitting way to bow out for a player who hit her 200th appearance for Wasps just before Christmas and whose career included 35 Army caps and six years as either captain or vice-captain, and she says that it was important to be able to walk away from the changing room on her own terms.
Sarah receiving her 25th Cap from then ARU Chairman Maj Gen Will Bramble CBE © Army Rugby Union
“I’ve been saying for a couple of years that I was looking to retire,” she says, “but I wanted to get my 200 caps first. So everyone knew it was coming and it wasn’t a shock for them.
“One of the reasons I stayed at Wasps was that they had been committed to me as much as I had been committed to them, so I knew that I would still be involved in some shape or form. I’ve also been lucky with injuries, although if I had been injured I would have had to find some way to come back as I couldn’t have finished like that – it was hard enough to finish after a semi-final!
“It was disappointing not to win, but after we’d had our team chat and started to walk around the stadium it was amazing. We’d not had fans at games for the entire season, but they were at my last game and to see so much black and gold in the stands and hear so much cheering it softened the blow, so to speak.”
SSgt Mitchelson says that a number of factors have played their part in making this the right time for her to step away, from the time commitment needed to train and play in a league which is becoming more and more competitive with each passing season – not least because it involved several hours each way from her north Midlands home to Wasps’ west London training base – through the desire to spend more time with family and career to the ambition to take her coaching to the next level.
SSgt Mitchelson is an RFU Level 3 qualified coach, one of a handful of female coaches to hold the qualification, and on the books with the Leicester Tigers Developing Player Programme. But she is already setting her sights on broadening her experience on the sidelines.
“I need to find somewhere to challenge me as a coach, finding links and getting my toes wet,” she says. “I want to hear other peoples’ opinions and see what other people do.
“When I did my Level 3 I was picking up so much from the different coaches I was working with and the different people who were on the course through the different CPDs that we did, and it was so nice to be filled with so much information that I could then implement. But since I’ve done my Level 3 I haven’t really been anywhere except for Wasps and for me it’s about growing that knowledge more and getting more information.
Image © Neil Kennedy
“What I really want to do is to grow my coaching and reach out to different places, and I’d be unable to do that while also playing because of the commitment. So while I’m closing the door to playing I’m opening the door to more coaching.”
Nevertheless the transition from the changing room to the coaches’ room is also allowing for a bit of time to reflect on the highlights on the pitch, and the answer is immediate.
“Any time that we beat Saracens!” SSgt Mitchelson laughs. “That’s always a nice feeling. There was also a Sevens tournament at Twickenham with some amazing players who were my friends as well.
“When I joined Wasps we were one of the top two teams. Then we were in play-offs to decide whether we were even going to stay in the league, and as we moved into the Premier 15s and Giselle [Mather] joined as Director of Rugby we started to grow. And to becoming a top four team from being a bottom two team, competing in semi-finals, is probably the biggest highlight.
Sarah playing for the Army v RAF in the Inter Service Championship © Army Rugby Union
“I still hope that there are many more highlights as part of the Army set-up for the next three years. But from playing when we went to New Zealand and beat the New Zealand Army – there wasn’t much to beat that feeling! And whenever we’ve beaten an international team, or beating the Australian Combined Service team in Australia, they’re the big things. Being able to tour and see these places is amazing, and hopefully there will be a few more of them as well.”
Having a playing career like SSgt Mitchelson’s needs commitment from a broader network away from the club, and she took the time to thank both family and work for their continued support.
“Anyone who’s ever looked after my daughter, which has been the biggest help I’ve ever needed, so my parents and partner,” she says.
“I’ve been really lucky with the Army, which has really supported me and allowed me to do everything I’ve wanted to do without getting special permission. My boss has always allowed me to go training and do what I needed to do, and give me the time to do my Level 3.”
We finish with a story which reflects both the changing nature of media, but also an indication of how much the women’s game is growing.
“Recently in the last two years the Army’s social media support with everything we do, that’s really good,” she says. “Even last week when I finished my MD course the RSM looked at me and recognised me as ‘that really good rugby player’. Then someone said to him ‘you can’t call her a rugby player’ and he replied ‘why not?’ and that he was going to tell his son – who’s a big Wasps fan – that he’d met one of the Wasps professional players. That reflects the sport growing, which is exactly how it should be.”
Words © Chris Wearmouth, Header and Featured Image © Neil Kennedy