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Sarah Hunter hails 'hugely significant' day for England Women's rugby

Credit: PA

Sarah Hunter has hailed a "hugely significant" day for England Women's rugby after the announcement of an elite player squad containing 28 full-time professionals.

England captain Hunter is among that group, being joined by the likes of her fellow 2014 World Cup winners Katy Daley-Mclean, Marlie Packer and Vicky Fleetwood.

The Rugby Football Union-funded squad is the only one in women's international rugby that is a permanent XVs group on full-time deals.

XVs contracts based on the next major tournament were not renewed after the 2017 World Cup, with an emphasis put on sevens instead, but the RFU announced in September that full-time XVs contracts would be implemented this season.

Credit: PA

"This is obviously a huge day for all of us who have been selected in the squad," said 33-year-old Hunter, who has won 108 caps.

"It is something in my playing career that I didn't think would probably happen, but it is the extent of the hard work the RFU has done to invest into the women's game.

"I think it is hugely significant, and for us as players, it means our focus can solely be on how we can be the best rugby player and how that contributes to being the best squad member for the England team.

"It allows us to focus solely on our training, out attention to detail, our rest and recovery.

"To be able to do that over a long period of time will hopefully make us the world's best team for when we get to 2021 and we go to the World Cup in New Zealand."

The 35-strong group also features seven players on EPS agreements, which means they will attend England camps and training, but not be part of the full-time programme.

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Others to receive full-time deals - the values of which have not been disclosed - include 2017 World Cup finalists Sarah Bern, Rachael Burford, Vickii Cornborough, Abbie Scott and Lydia Thompson.

And, as previously announced, three players - Natasha Hunt, Emily Scarratt and Jess Breach - will move back into the 15s programme from sevens.

Under its women and girls strategy, the RFU plans to double the number of participants by 2021, increase the number of women's teams by more than 75 per cent to 800, the number of active women's clubs to more than 400, and get more women involved in the sport as referees, coaches and volunteers.

RFU head of women's performance Nicky Ponsford added: "We have created a sustainable model that will carry us through to 2021 and beyond.

"Players will be based on a day to day basis with their clubs. As well as their day to day programmes with their clubs, we will have over 80 contract days with the players between now and the end of July.

At England Rugby we want to be driving standards in women's rugby through everything we do.

– Nicky Ponsford

"It is the RFU's ambition to be world number one in the women's game.

"And the implementation of professional full-time contracts puts us in the best position to do that and to lead the way, ensuring we have access to the players and develop them.

"We are not expecting to see a change overnight, but we are really looking forward to developing this group of players over the next two years into the World Cup.

"There are people on longer-term contracts, and some are on shorter-term contracts. They will be reviewed towards the end of their contracts.

"At England Rugby we want to be driving standards in women's rugby through everything we do."

England's first game with a full-time squad will be their Six Nations opener against Ireland in Dublin on February 1.