England prop Sarah Bern inspired by Lionesses’ glory ahead of Rugby World Cup

England prop Sarah Bern is likely to form a key part of the Red Roses’ tilt at Rugby World Cup glory

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The air conditioning is off at England’s Pennyhill Park training base, rather an inconvenience in the continuing summer swelter, but it is with a typically ebullient smile that Sarah Bern sits down, the prop enjoying a morning off from preparations for the World Cup. It has been an intense preseason programme designed to push the Red Roses to their limits to ensure that they are as ready as they can be when they depart for the tournament in late September – and one that has, perversely, coincided almost precisely with two months of record temperatures.

“It’s been hot, very hot!” Bern begins of a summer of suffering that has further united a settled squad. “I feel like we are really bonding over the hard work. You’ve got to pull each other out of the holes.

“We have all got a massive World Cup elephant in the room which we want to do as well as we can in. It is bringing us together but it is definitely hard work.”

But the end is in sight as Bern and I speak in the close morning air, England beginning to prepare more squarely for a meeting with the USA in Exeter, the first of two warm-up fixtures, on 3 September. Besides, it has not been a summer without its highlights. The Red Roses revelled particularly in the success of Sarina Wiegman’s Lionesses at Euro 2022: a full national stadium, a record television audience and English hands on a major trophy an indicator of what may yet be to come for this squad.

Sarah Bern and Lydia Thompson celebrate beating New Zealand last year

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“I loved it. It was so entertaining,” Bern, an Umbro ambassador, recalls of the tournament. “When England won, it did bring a tear to my eye, because that is what we want to do.

“We want to be a team that are remembered, like I imagine they want to be as well. It is great that we are doing it side by side. They are pushing boundaries in sport and we want to continue to do that.

“They are working as hard as they can and we are working as hard as we can, and if that means the results come that is great. But at the same time, we are here to inspire, we are here to push boundaries.

“We have got to try and push for equality in sport – it needs to be there, and the time is now.”

Like their footballing counterparts, the Red Roses have forged a special connection with their fans, spending more than an hour engaging with more than a thousand supporters that came to watch an O2 open training session at Twickenham. The shared qualities extend to winning runs on the pitch. Barring a shock defeat to the USA or Wales, Simon Middleton’s side will head for New Zealand on a record 25-game unbeaten streak. Guarding against complacency is a key focus.

“We know we have put a big target on our backs,” Bern explains. “Everyone is coming for us and we are very aware of that.”

“We want to keep pushing forwards and be as amazing as we can. We probably put more pressure on ourselves because we are such harsh critics and we want to have the perfect game, which is impossible.

“None of us put our feet up – I think it would be very dangerous to have that mindset.”

A 39-strong training squad will be reduced to 32 before England head to New Zealand. Middleton’s tighthead resources are deep, with as many of five proven international options to be narrowed to a likely three tourists, but Bern’s place at the top of the pecking order looks secure.

In 2017, Bern, then the youngest member of the squad, burst on the scene as a tighthead tyro, the breakthrough star of the Red Roses’ run to the final. Despite several injury-disrupted seasons, she has evolved into a true prop polymath: dancer and destroyer in the open field; rock solid in the tight.

Having begun her career in the back row, the Bristol prop is now a self-confessed scrum “geek”, taking on a greater role in analysis sessions to refine and anchor a unit guided by forwards coach Louis Deacon. Bern has also worked with a psychologist to give her clearer, tangible focus points to assess her performance. Driving it all is the pain of that final defeat to the Black Ferns in Ireland five years ago. The loss is a sore that will only be soothed by victory at Eden Park on 12 November.

“I don’t want to feel that ever again,” Bern concludes: a regretful look back; a driven look forward. “I don’t want to get to the last 20 [minutes] and everything you worked for is taken away.

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“It is now five years of hard work. I want to make sure that I am in the best place I can be so when that opportunity comes, I, and the team, can take it.”

Sarah Bern is an ambassador for Umbro. For more information visit umbro.co.uk/rugby or follow @Umbro_Rugby on Instagram

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