England’s Sarah Bern: ‘For me, there’s no middle ground, it’s all or nothing’

Mould-breaking rugby players, male or female, are pretty rare. By almost any measure, though, England’s Sarah Bern is different. As a teenager she once aspired to be a downhill skier and sporting orthodoxy has never grabbed her. The result is a one-of-a-kind athlete with the ability, when the Women’s Rugby World Cup kicks off next month, to illuminate the gloomiest of autumns.

England’s 32-player squad for the tournament will be unveiled on Tuesday and if there is anyone on the list guaranteed to give it everything it is the 25-year-old Bern. Powerful tighthead props are not supposed to score long-range tries from halfway or sidestep like sevens players but, in her mind, if feels entirely normal. “It probably excites me more because people are always going: ‘Oh, you’re a prop.’ They probably don’t look at bigger players and think: ‘They’re going to enjoy running in open field.’ I always have done.”

It is asking a lot for the Red Roses to nudge the saintly Lionesses off their new perch as the nation’s sporting darlings. But having now gone a world-record 25 Tests unbeaten, the dynamic Bern and her teammates clearly have a great chance to shift the dial in terms of how their sport is perceived. The 73-7 hammering of Wales in Wednesday’s final warm-up game was merely the latest sign of their gathering momentum.

Nor is the world-class Bern the type to ease up with a job half done. “I’ve always been very driven. I’ll never do anything half-hearted, I’m not a person who really has a middle ground. For me, it’s all or nothing.’ Hence her brief flirtation with skiing. “I really wanted to become a downhill skier. I absolutely loved zooming down the piste and I wanted to see if I could combine it with rugby.”

By her early teens her Scottish father, Graeme, was growing tired of finishing second in their informal races. “He said: ‘Right, we can’t race any more because you keep winning.’”

These days, though, Bern would recommend rugby to anyone, regardless of size, shape or background. For any youngsters looking to overcome body confidence issues, she is also an instinctive ally. “My two sisters, who are 10 years older than me, are both tiny little size 8s and around 5ft 2in tall. They were very much into ballet, fashion and art. I’m into all of those as well but dance was too delicate for me.”

Instead Bern is living proof that a love of musical theatre – “I just saw Moulin Rouge, I absolutely love Dreamgirls’ – and a professional sporting lifestyle can happily co-exist. Having learned the game at London Irish and Esher, the 91kg (14st 3lb)-Bern switched from the back-row to prop and can often be found in the gym dead-lifting up to 165kg. “If you’re involved in sport, you do sometimes think: ‘I look absolutely huge.’ When you go into town you do feel a little bit bigger. But here, playing rugby, you feel absolutely normal. You’re used to bigger people.”

The more blinkered corners of the internet, sadly, do not always appreciate ultra fit, muscular sportswomen capable of shifting plenty of tin. While Bern, who first represented England aged 18, has had a few sexist comments lobbed at her on social media, she refuses to give ground to the haters. “You’re always going to have people who have their opinion online. That’s society and, unfortunately, women are always being pushed into having to look and behave a certain way.

“I still think those kind of archaic views are there but I think it is definitely changing. If we can inspire people to be healthy, fit and strong, then great. What’s important is being happy and being able to do what you love doing. All the guys don’t look the same and they’re still seen as top-class athletes.”

With 46 caps to her name, there is no doubting Bern’s pedigree, nor her driven nature. Her father played volleyball for Scotland but at school in Esher she preferred athletics, basketball and netball. ‘My mum and dad never really pushed me. It was more a case of ‘I want to try this’ and then ‘I want to be really good at it.’

“I struggled when I was younger with reading and writing. Because I never wanted to do badly in any test I’d have to put a lot of extra effort in away from school. I think that’s where that drive comes from. You’ve got to keep working, you can’t just put your feet up. It’s just carried through in my life.”

Bern also enjoys feeling more settled in Bristol nowadays, having moved frequently in her youth. “We’d live in run-down, small houses and Dad would do them up while we lived in them. We moved loads. I’d come home and find an oven on the floor and no walls in the kitchen. I’d be like: ‘So are we going to eat in the pub tonight?’ Now I love organisation. I can’t live in building sites.”

Her resilience was also recently tested by almost a year out recuperating from a serious shoulder injury, to the point where she wondered if she would ever fully recover. “I couldn’t do a press-up for ages. It was the last bit I needed to tick off and it caused me so much pain. For me as a tighthead it’s vitally important to use that shoulder, to rotate in and use it for the bind. You get to the point when you think: ‘What is the point? I’m never going to be able to do that again.’”

Which is why no one is more alert to the significant opportunity now awaiting both her and England. Expectations are sky high but the players sound ready. “If something’s not good enough it won’t necessarily be the coaches who say so. It’ll probably be a player first. We never sit in a meeting patting ourselves on the back. We’re always looking at how we can can be better.”

And, if the need arises, even the free-spirited, sevens-loving Bern will be quite happy to grind opposing scrums into the Kiwi grass if required. “It’s such a chess game and it’s such hard work. As much as I love running in space there is no better feeling.” Aside, perhaps, from hoisting the World Cup skywards on 12 November.