Kat Merchant has over the last three years become one of my closest friends. So I am more than a little gutted for her that she had to announce her retirement from rugby. Before I talk about her as a player I will first talk about her as a person. When we first met each other I suppose neither of us was that enamoured with the other. Most of my time I talked about scrums and to me she always seemed a bit cold and aloof. However when we spent some time together, and in the way many friendships form – following lots of alcohol—we became friends. Even though there is not a single personality trait we share. We have formed a bond similar to that which E.T. had with Eliot – I will let you decide who is most like E.T.
She has become the person who keeps me on the straight and narrow questions every life decision I make. She nags me constantly and bombards me with questions like a machine gun to the point where I am no longer aware which question I am answering. She is also a person who is kind, caring and thoughtful. Above all and most importantly to me, she is a fiercely protective and loyal friend.
Now onto the player: 44 tries in 57 games is a statistic of world class proportions. This is someone who with ten meters of space in front of her is highly likely to get over the try line. She is someone who may not touch the ball for 79 minutes but when she does she scores a try. It’s not just the try’s she scores it’s where she scores them from. Not many come from a few meters out and quite a few come from around half way and involve beating two or three defenders. That takes a huge amount of concentration.
I always said she was the strangest player to watch. She would stand, hands on hips almost oblivious to the game going on then, suddenly she would get the ball and you would think “well there is no chance she is going to go anywhere here.” While that thought went through your head, She would then fend someone off, roll out of the next contact, and step inside the final defender to score. Even the most difficult try scoring opportunity in her hands looked effortless. That is the mark of true quality. I actually think her try against Samoa summed up her constant flirtation with the touch line, coupled with a little pirouette.
Kat does not come across as an outwardly competitive person but inside she is utterly driven. She has a desire to be the fittest and to be the best. She has a desire to push herself to the absolute limit and beyond.
If you look at the injuries she has sustained in her career and the work she did to overcome them you cannot help but admire her. A serious knee injury she returned from in 6 months which for the record takes most people at least 9 months. She returned from a serious arm injury which resulted in a little “nemo” arm. She has been unable to straighten fully since she had the operation to correct it. She was back and passed to play in three months. Driven by a desire to play in the 2010 world cup after being told it would take her 5 months to return. This is someone who was never going to go quietly into the night. Then add to this the numerous concussions she has had to overcome and each time she came back it was as if she had never been away and was back to her best.
I watched the game in which England played the black ferns in 2009 and won. I have to say it was one of the best games of rugby I saw her play. She fought her way out of contact situations involving 4 or 5 defenders she made break after break down her wing. I imagine her premature retirement will be greeted with some relief from one or two international and domestic wingers; who have had sleepless nights thinking about her powerful running and her even more powerful fend.
Oppositions in the last few years had definitely upped their analysis on her and that is a credit to her threat as a player. I believe it is her threat out wide that also helped to opening up space for players around her.
I’m really torn about her retirement. On a personally level it will be a great relief to me because having seen her get knocked out at the Worcester v Saracens game last year and the length of time it took her to overcome the resulting concussion. I had a genuine concern for her. For her as a player and fan I am devastated at a time when she was offered the chance to follow a lifelong ambition to be paid to play rugby it was a heart-breaking time for her to have to make the decision. My other concern is it will give her more time to hide in cupboards to try and give me a heart attack, burn me with a hot spoon, throw things at me, nag me and generally torment me – though I would be gutted if she didn’t.
One thing about Kat that admire is her mental strength. The definition of courage is not the absence of fear but the ability to overcome it and she has always done that. She always says to me “you can always find an excuse, a reason not to do something, but if something matters to you, you can find a way to make it happen.” I am sure whatever it is she decides to do in the future she will be a great success at, she is an incredibly motivational P.T. and pushes people to achieve things they may not think possible. As a rugby coach she has inspired not only women but at my rugby club countless men to better themselves as players and to be fitter and stronger.
I know how hard she will find it to step away at a time when the women’s game is finally achieving the recognition it deserves but as a player she is able to do so on the back of winning the ultimate prize of a World Cup. Two years ago with Worcester, the club she has spent her entire playing career with, she played a vital role in their first premiership title. She retires not only a premiership champion and world cup winner but with a playing record that stands her alongside some of the best players ever to pull on an international shirt. She is also someone who I am very lucky to have as a part of my life.