When Rochelle ‘Rocky’ Clark decided to step away from international rugby in July, the announcement of her retirement was met with a wave of well-wishes.
England team-mates past and present, as well as those who had watched her 15-year test career from further afield, lined up to lavish praise on the legendary prop for what she had achieved in the white shirt.
And Clark has accomplished a lot on the international stage. England’s most-capped player across both the men’s and women’s game, the 137-cap hoarder of Grand Slams – she amassed seven – played in four Women’s Rugby World Cup finals, and lifted the trophy in 2014.
International retirement has not been easy for Clark, who tore one of the tendons in her hamstring off the bone during a pre-season game of touch as she redoubled her efforts to give Wasps “another crack for a year or two”.
Clark felt that at 37, and unlikely to still be around for the next Women’s Rugby World Cup in 2021, it was time to let a new generation of front-row forwards emerge for England.
The final act
She will watch them in action this November against USA, Canada and Ireland but knows that not being able to be out there herself for the first time in a decade-and-a-half might prove difficult.
“I had achieved all I wanted internationally, but it was a really tough decision,” said Clark, who sits behind only Richie McCaw, Brian O'Driscoll and George Gregan in terms of test caps won.
“I think I’m going to find it really hard when they (England) play in their autumns. But unfortunately everyone has to retire at some point.”
One hell of an innings, but sadly it’s time for me to call it a day. I’ve had the most amazing 15 years playing for my country and wearing the red rose. I’ve played alongside and against some of the worlds best... pic.twitter.com/A6MDntxzeu— Rocky Clark MBE (@RockyClark_1) August 1, 2018
Clark’s final appearance in an England shirt came on the final day of the 2018 Women’s Six Nations, as the Red Roses beat Ireland 33-11 at the Ricoh Arena in Coventry.
It was a fitting stage on which to bow out, but her hopes of signing off with an eighth clean sweep and ninth championship in all had evaporated six days previously as France edged past England in front of a raucous record crowd of more than 17,000 in Grenoble.
“I was hoping I could do it (retire) as a Six Nations champion but unfortunately we lost out in France so that wasn’t quite where I wanted to finish,” Clark added.
Life after playing
“It’s all about the next cycle now and realistically I wasn’t going to be in the next World Cup squad, so you have to make way and let the youngsters through, and hopefully give back in my coaching.”
Clark admits she was “really cut up” when she felt her hamstring pop just three weeks before the start of the Tyrrells Premier 15s season but her desire to play on has provided inspiration during rehab.
She has only recently been able to run on the injury but any spare energy has been put to good use with Chesham Stags, the men’s team she coaches alongside former England team-mate Kat Merchant.
“What it (injury) has enabled me to do is really throw all my eggs in one basket in terms of coaching,” Clark said. “So it means I can be with them every week and it’s been really positive to have something to really focus on.
“I haven’t had that release (of playing) and I cannot tell you … I’m champing at the bit to back but I’ve definitely had my mind taken off it by coaching the boys.”
Clark is currently enrolled on a Level 4 coaching course with the RFU and has hopes to use that knowledge at a higher level, although having recently performed co-commentary duties for Premier 15s coverage she admits a career in the media could also be an option.
While she deliberates over what life after rugby will look like, Clark is keen to give back to a game that she says “changed my life”.
“I was 15 and my friend asked me to go along (to rugby training) one day. I was like ‘ah, no I’ll get injured’,” she said. “I went along, never looked back. I was drawn to it because it was a game for all shapes and sizes.
“Back then at school I was quite a big girl, not necessarily the first pick on the sports teams but then I suddenly became such an important person on this team. ‘You can’t play without Rocks’.
“Being a big girl I was quite a go-to in rugby, and that was so nice and gave me confidence.”
If it was love at first sight for Clark and rugby, the loose-head prop soon discovered when making her England debut against Canada in 2003 that she would need more than size to thrive on the international stage.
England’s nutritionist at the time, Dr Karen Reid, put Clark on a strict low-fat diet while she was also required to attend strength and conditioning sessions at Twickenham every week. Being a university student at the time meant the prop was forced into a fairly drastic lifestyle change, shunning chocolate, fast food and nights out.
A fairytale year
“It was (tough) and I’m really proud of that part of my life,” Clark said. “If you’d have seen me a year apart I was a completely different person.
“I was just so proud that I was able to do that and it put me in a much healthier place. And that was the start of my England career, and a very long career which I’m very proud of.”
Winning the World Cup in 2014 remains, according to Clark, “without a doubt the best day of my life” and led to an MBE in the 2015 New Year Honours and a subsequent trip to Windsor Castle to cap a “fairytale year”.
Clark still had more to achieve, however, claiming her 115th England cap on 13 November, 2016 to overtake her hero, World Rugby Hall of Fame inductee Jason Leonard, as her country’s most-capped player. Naturally, she celebrated the occasion with a try.
“I really looked up to him,” she said. “So, it was amazing to be associated with his name, or anywhere near.
“I didn’t really try to think about it until it happened, because you never know when your last cap is and you don’t want to take it for granted. So, I really enjoyed the moment afterwards, a very proud moment to be in his club.”