Retiring Harlequins player Zoe Saynor on her ‘epic’ journey as part of the generation that’s set women’s rugby on fire
For Harlequins lock Zoe Saynor retirement has brought a period of reflection in which she has realised what an ‘epic’ journey she has been on as women’s rugby has progressed.
When she began playing the sport at 23 the thought of thousands of fans watching, and being paid to play, was a pipe dream.
Now some clubs in the Premier 15s pay match fees to players and the upcoming season of the top flight have given clubs a salary cap of £60,000. In addition nearly 5,000 watched Quins’ Game Changer fixture v Gloucester Hartpury in March 2019.
It’s come a long way since her surprise to be given kit when she began playing for Quins in 2016 and, as she tells NewsChain in an exclusive interview, she is in awe of how far the women’s game has come and that she has been a part of it.
“For me it's mostly kind of amazement in terms of what's happened,” she says.
"When I was playing for Richmond and [coaches at] Quins said ‘we are going on this journey do you want to come?’ I said ‘yeah where do you train?’ and they said ‘Guildford’ and I was like 'great that's closer to where I live’ and that was it.
"It wasn’t a who’s playing and what's this all about. None of us had any idea what was going to unfold and I think for me that is the biggest thing when I look back.
“I remember my first season of Quins I was so excited that we got some kit! Now that's the standard which is pretty cool, that is the norm. We get boots from Adidas, we are the era that get boots! Times are so different now and that's what is pretty epic for me."
As well as her time at Quins, Saynor has played for Richmond, has three caps for England and has played for the Barbarians.
But despite the progress being made each season, she’s decided the time is right to step aside.
“It's something I have been thinking about for a couple of years. In reality I nearly retired a couple of years ago just because balancing work [Saynor is a lecturer at University of Portsmouth] and rugby and everything is challenging! But I've done a lot of seasons and the thing for me as well is I've been injured since October and I'm not completely rehabbed yet.
"The pandemic put a pause on lots of things we were able to do. There’s also lots of reflection on what we have achieved and I came to the conclusion that I'm pretty happy to sign off with what I have done. Not everybody gets to that point but for me the good thing with this period is that you can reflect a lot.
“I’ve reflected for four to five months and actually what we have done is pretty awesome.”
The 32 year-old suffered a knee injury back in October and that has proved decisive.
"It's definitely been a factor and it's definitely been a wake-up call. You know I've had quite a few injuries that take six to nine months to rehab and I think every time you have a serious injury you have to say ‘do I want to go through that six to nine month rehab and then put my body on the line’?
"That's the difference between rugby and other sport right, that every time you take to the pitch you are potentially going to break yourself. Many years I've said 'yeah I'll break myself again’, this time is the first time that I have said ‘no’.
“I've been retiring for four years so it's not been a quick decision.”
And while she has achieved all she wanted in her career, one thing Saynor does wish she could change is saying goodbye to the sport on the field at Quins’ home ground The Stoop.
"When you're rehabbing any injury you have the goal, for us, to run out at The Stoop. The dream when you're injured is to play about ten minutes and to go through your warm-ups on the pitch at Quins which is nice. So yeah that's [been] tough.
"I spoke to our psychologist about it and the team and said 'you know if that's the one thing that I would change then it's still pretty good’. We'll still go to The Stoop [when it’s safe], I'll still go to see the girls.
“A lot of the team still haven't seen each other, they're training in bubbles, and it's a very different time at the moment and that's just something I'll suck up I guess.”
The Stoop is the location for her career highlight - the Game Changer where Harlequins promoted a women’s match to attract record crowds.
“There’s been a long list of highlights, the one I keep saying from the Quins perspective is the Game Changer. The whole campaign, because we were at The Stoop with our mini me’s and everything that went into that day, the crowd that came, the whole vibe that was pretty up there for a big testament,” she said.
"One of my stand-out memories that I wrote on social media when I played at Richmond was the 2016 Premiership final against Saracens which was the first women’s club game at The Stoop. We got changed in the changing rooms down the road. We were ready to go, we were on the pitch.
"To think that's Quins [women’s] home ground now is pretty epic. I think for me, the evolution of the journey, that's why I'm glad I didn't retire a couple of years ago.”
Saynor’s future will now be centred around her career as a University of Portsmouth lecturer and researcher in Sports and Exercise Science. While she has plans for her own future, she believes coaching girls in their careers off the pitch is the next step in women’s rugby.
"When I spoke to Atlanta St John [Head of Harlequins Women’s Rugby Programme] I think for me one thing that is very important for the future is building a pathway for girls. So they don’t have to go to uni but [it’s a question of] can we build a pathway that engages people to invest in themselves off the pitch.
"Tell them what to do, what does life after rugby look like? I am very lucky, I can slip into my career and carry on and that's not the same for everybody. For me personally that’s something I'd like to build and we've already had discussions about that.
"In terms of legacy, I think there’s getting girls in the game and there’s also, we learn so many skills in sport and I don’t think people appreciate what we have and we are so appealing as athletes in so many careers.
“I think sometimes people need a helping hand in terms of getting going with that, so yeah that is something I'm passionate about.”
And Saynor’s career in sport is not over. She has said she would love to compete in an Ironman and when asked if she would want to commentate on Premier 15s action, or the Rugby World Cup next summer, it’s not something she’d turn down.
"Who knows, if they asked me I wouldn't say no! I'm game for anything like that, it's awesome to see some of the girls commentating on the Prem 15s games over the last season.
“So who knows, I’m a very open book.”