The tighthead props are integral players for their Bristol and England sides. We got to know them… 

Sarah Bern and Kyle Sinckler Exclusive

Cornerstone, foundation, rock. These are all words often used to describe tighthead props, given their importance in providing solidity to the scrum as well as their graft around the field. Yet those aren’t words that first come to mind when discussing Sarah Bern and Kyle Sinckler, who wear the No 3 shirt for club and country.

The Bristol Bears and England pair aren’t one to shirk the basics previously mentioned, with both focused on set-piece and closequarters work, but they are arguably better known for their skills in the loose – a break through the defence here, a deft pass there, maybe even a sidestep for good measure.

Both Bern and Sinckler started playing in the back-line, which is no doubt why they are so comfortable with ball in hand, and the two have plenty more in common. They’ve both faced setbacks with form and injury over the past couple of years – and both know the heartbreak of losing a Rugby World Cup final.

Bern was in the infancy of her international career when the Red Roses lost 41-32 to the Black Ferns in Belfast in 2017 while Sinckler’s appearance in the RWC 2019 defeat by the Springboks lasted just a few minutes after he was knocked unconscious. Those disappointments are driving them forward, with Bern hoping for success in New Zealand later this year and Sinckler the same at France 2023.

Rugby World talks to the two props about Bears, bursts and basics…

What has led to the turnaround results-wise for Bristol this season – the women are in the Premier 15s title mix but the men have been struggling?

Kyle Sinckler: I wouldn’t say it’s anything in particular, it’s tiny little things. Bristol are now the hunted, not the hunters. Whenever anyone plays Bristol, they see that as a massive scalp whereas probably before they underestimated Bristol. We’re not an unknown quantity.

We need to improve and be more ruthless when we get a chance. There is massive belief in the group and what we’re doing.

Sarah Bern: It’s totally different to last year and it’s been brilliant. (New signings) Abbie Ward is a good friend of mine and Leanne Riley is another team-mate with England. They’re helping to give a bit more of a spine to the team. (New coach) Dave Ward has been brilliant and has brought everyone together. He’s upskilled a lot of girls.

Injuries were a huge factor last season – we had 18 at one point, which is pretty much a whole squad and bench. I was injured, Amber Reed was, some of the Wales girls had injuries too. This season Alisha Butchers has been amazing, so has Jasmine Joyce, Kayleigh Powell has been smashing it. It’s having depth and strong players performing each week.

KS: Dave is a very good friend of mine, one of my best mates, and I was really excited when I saw he was joining Bristol. We had a conversation at the start of the year about helping out and I’ve reviewed some of their games, scrums, and given feedback. I enjoy the game, love the game, so it’s nice to see the women’s team doing so well.

SB: He’s helped massively with scrums. He’s helped review clips and send back thoughts. It’s really intricate things, very small details that a lot of people might not see. It may be moving your foot back a centimetre or trying to put a little bit more weight through, having more explosive energy and how you can get that into the process. Scrummaging is process-driven, so if you get the same set-up, more positive outcomes occur.

KS: I knew of Sarah before I joined Bristol, her scoring ridiculous tries, stepping the full-back from 50m out!

It’s not massive things that need to change, I just say, “Here’s what I find works for me, give that a go.” Then as a prop you figure out your own technique. I’ve tried things from Adam Jones, Joe Marler, Graham Rowntree, whoever… I pick up little things, give it a go and if it works I use it. If not, I don’t.

You mentioned long-range tries. You’re both known for your running ability…

KS: It’s been a couple of years since I’ve run it in from 20 or 30m.

Have you asked Sarah for any advice?

KS: I should do! That (his runs) is my X-factor. In my opinion that’s what sets me apart from everyone else, but what I’ve focused on since 2019 is the fundamentals – scrummage, making tackles, ruck work.

Before, I was probably a showboaty player; I’d have a good run or a good pass, but it wasn’t at a consistent level. I’d get a miracle moment and live off that for the whole game. Now, my discipline is good, my fundamentals are a lot better week in, week out, then if a miracle moment presents itself I’ll take it but I won’t chase it. I’m not running around like a headless chicken, trying to make line breaks.

The basics and the fundamentals of the game are what you have to do to be a world-class player, to play week in, week out in the Premiership or at international level. Now the unseen work is something I relish – maul, tackling, scrummage. Then if an opportunity for a trundle comes I’ll be ready.

SB: A big part of growing up for me was playing sevens; I absolutely loved sevens. I love running in open field, two v ones, that’s something that sparks joy for me. But I make sure I do my role as tighthead really well too, as best I can, then when I get those opportunities to have a bit of fun, I go.

It’s probably what I’m best known for and is definitely something I like; I love it. It’s harder to do these things with everyone’s scrums getting better, defences getting better, but when I get those opportunities it’s very exciting.

You’ve both had challenges over the past few years, be it injuries or moving clubs. How do you deal with that?

SB: It was pretty tough, particularly the timing of it (shoulder injury last season). I didn’t know the timeframe to get back for the World Cup, it was a tight turnaround and it takes time for your body to get over. Then the week after the surgery, the World Cup got postponed! With rehab, it’s difficult but you find the determination, you just do, and I had amazing medical teams.

I’ve always done everything 100%, every session, and I’ve had to learn that my body can’t do that all the time. It would be like driving around in a car with no petrol in it. That’s what my body was trying to tell me. It’s been a learning curve and I’ll be 100% when I need to be, but I won’t push over that line too much. Now I feel fit, I feel strong.

KS: When I first moved (from Harlequins to Bristol) it was the middle of lockdown and it was really rushed as well. There was a lot of stress and I have empathy for footballers moving from Germany or Brazil and not setting the league alight.

I didn’t realise how it would affect me when I first moved. I wasn’t playing my best rugby, I needed to get settled into a new team and new environment, to find out more about the team and get comfortable. Now I feel Bristol is my home. I’m quite a homebody, I’ve got my chickens, and I love it here. It takes time to settle and now I’m ready to kick on.

How would you describe your club coach?

KS: With Pat Lam, you know exactly what is required. That’s what I love about Bristol, no grey areas, there’s unbelievable clarity. He works tremendously hard on the detail, the way he prepares the team, reviews training and reviews opposition… I know he’s got a family, so I don’t know how he juggles his personal life with his professional life because he’s so committed.

As a player I love knowing what my job is, having that clarity of what he needs me to do. Pat lets you know what he expects every week.

SB: I’d describe Dave Ward as very happy. He’s extremely hard-working, which I think aligns with Pat. He’s very much developing how the girls grow our game. He’s not harsh but he’s very honest, which is really good, and he’s very encouraging.

How often do you think about your last World Cup final?

KS: At the time it was quite tough, partly because I didn’t remember what the hell happened. The whole experience was pretty surreal, in a bad way, but I just try to use it as motivation now, to get back to that position of being in a final, to right the wrongs and win the World Cup.

That drives me every day in training, to push myself and make myself a better player. Hopefully next year, I’ll be playing in a World Cup final and winning a World Cup final for my country. A year is a long time, so I have to make sure I’m diligent in preparing and give my all every day.

SB: I try not to think about it. It was hard. For me, that whole tournament was a bit of a whirlwind. I wasn’t expecting to play until a couple of months before when there was an injury and I got called in. It was a bit crazy. I’d worked so hard to get there and to be overpowered by those guys just in the last 20 minutes was really hard.

But I think it fuels you. That drives you on days you’re injured, because you want to be there the next time it comes around and, if you get the opportunity, for the outcome to be in your favour. So you give a little bit extra. It’s a long time ago, five years, but it actually keeps you going when you’re tired.

How much have you developed since the 2017 World Cup?

SB: I didn’t have a clue last time! I was just trying my best not to go back in the scrum. Fergy (then-forwards coach Matt Ferguson) was brilliant and he really pushed me in that position. The girls around me at the time were very experienced and helped me as well.

I massively took ownership after that World Cup, asking a lot of questions on how to become a good scrummager. It’s that thirst for how you can get better at certain things. The big difference is my knowledge around scrummaging and hopefully that is paying off a little more.

How do you think England are shaping up for your next World Cup?

KS: We’re heading in the right direction. I was impressed with the autumn campaign, especially the new guys coming in. You only know how good you are when you’re in that environment; you can play all the games in training, lift all the weights in the gym, but you never know until you’re in the arena. Test rugby is very different. Those guys stepped up massively. I was impressed with how they handled themselves on and off the pitch. They’re very mature, a lot more mature than I was at that age!

The future is really exciting and there’s competition for places in every position, which makes sure everyone is on their toes and ready to perform. If you don’t perform, there are another two or three world-class players in your position.

The autumn wins over New Zealand must have been a big boost ahead of the tournament this year, Sarah…

SB: None of us were expecting it. It was a chance to see where we’re at and we weren’t expecting those outcomes, but we were very happy with them.

The RFU has really stepped up and backed us, and we’re a little bit ahead of other nations now, but it’s how we ramp up, stay focused and don’t rest. New Zealand have full-time athletes now, Wales have got a foundation of full-time athletes. It’s positive but nerve-racking because we don’t know what’s to come.

The men’s and women’s set-ups have got relatively new forwards coaches. What impact have they had? 

KS: Matt Proudfoot came in from South Africa and has brought a mindset shift in terms of the set-piece. Everyone knows how much South Africa pride themselves on the set-piece and the scrum, and he’s brought that to us.

I think it’s shown in our performances, especially in the South Africa game (in November). There’s now a mindset where the whole eight buy in and Matt deserves a lot of credit for that. He’s a world-class coach and has added a lot of value to the front five.

SB: Louis Deacon is a brilliant coach. He’s a very level-headed, calm personality, and he has very high standards. He’s really good at pushing on and there’s really good momentum to what we do, to keep getting better.

The set-piece was a lot better in the autumn than in the last Six Nations, and there’s a lot to come, we can be even better. He’s a brilliant coach, I get on with him really well, and he’ll push us to be one of the best packs.

Who was your childhood hero?

SB: Maggie Alphonsi was one of my coaches, so was Danielle Waterman. Alex Matthews was actually in the age group above me at London Irish and she was playing for England, so I wanted to play for England. She’s so skilled and it was nice to have that role model.

KS: I loved football, so David Beckham. I tried to get my mum to buy me the Predators with the tongue. I couldn’t be more opposite to David Beckham but I would try to emulate his free-kicks.

Who has been the biggest influence on your career?

KS: There are so many. If Collin Osborne hadn’t scouted me while watching his son play, I might not be in the position I am now. In the Harlequins Academy, Tony Diprose put up with a lot with me, I was a handful. John Kingston and Conor O’Shea were instrumental in my development.

Conor gave me my debut and played me a lot when I didn’t have great consistency. I’d be 9/10 one week, then 1/10 the next four, but he’d keep playing me. Eddie Jones gave me a chance at international level when I wasn’t starting for Harlequins.

From a playing perspective, when I first joined Quins, Jordan Turner-Hall, Danny Care and Ugo Monye really looked after me. There’s Graham Rowntree, Nick Evans, Adam Jones… Adam made me understand the nuance, the small intricate details of playing tighthead prop at the highest level, the hours you have to put in. Now I’m here at Bristol, Pat Lam believes in me and has given me a chance here. Hopefully I’ll return that faith with performances.

It’s an amalgamation of all those players and coaches and people; it’s hard to put your finger on one.

SB: I’d probably say my mum and dad; they gave me brilliant opportunities. They’d drive me to sevens and tens tournaments, the opportunity to go to Hartpury was amazing for me, they’ve watched every single game and have just been very supportive. Without them, I wouldn’t have had those opportunities and wouldn’t have been able to push as hard as I did at a young age.

What do you do away from rugby?

SB: Abbie Ward and I play Xbox quite a bit. I love going to the beach too. I live in Cardiff, so I’m not too far from beautiful beaches – that’s where you’ll find me in the summer.

KS: Whenever I do have time outside of training, reviewing opposition and getting myself prepared in the week, I work on my foundation to help the next generation of inner-city kids. It’s something I’m really passionate about. It’s called The R3cusants, which is Latin and means the failure to comply with authority. It’s my platform for the next generation, for anyone who is looking for inspiration. I’m biased because it’s mine, but I believe it’s pretty cool.

There are three categories. Will, where I will gift an opportunity; Physicality, to help kids understand gym programmes and there will be different examples of workouts with me doing them; Intellect, which is an animated podcast, really cool. Hopefully it will inspire kids.

This article originally appeared in the April 2022 edition of Rugby World.

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