Sarah Beckett Exclusive: ‘To show people that believed in me that it was worth it - that’s important to me’

Sarah Beckett has returned to the Red Roses with a bang
©RFU Collection via Getty Images

Sarah Beckett first stepped foot onto the hallowed turf of Twickenham while she was still at school.

With former England legend Gill Burns as her coach at Range High and a then budding and now current Red Rose Holly Aitchison as her teammate, a young Beckett made her “HQ” debut

This weekend, with Burns in the crowd and Aitchison on the pitch alongside her once more, she’ll step out of the tunnel for England in front of over 53,000 fans in the Six Nations Grand Slam decider against France.

The progression of the player and the person Beckett has become from her maiden Twickenham appearance to now has been huge. The past six months however have been some of the toughest in her career and left her doubting if she’d ever pull on an England shirt again.

Heartbreakingly missing out on a place in the squad for last year’s Rugby World Cup, Beckett has made a phoenix from the ashes-esque return to the Red Roses for this Six Nations.

Last weekend in particular, the fire from within that has driven her through the tough times in the past six months was burning brighter than ever. A try in the first two minutes, a stunning offload in the build-up to England’s third, and a player of the match-winning performance made one thing abundantly clear; she belongs in an England shirt.

As we sit down to chat in the café at England’s training base, Beckett candidly opens up about the past six months and how it feels to be back wearing the rose again.

“It's kind of like a relief,” she said.

"I felt over that World Cup period that I backed myself to be there and obviously, I didn't make the cut. When you have that self-belief it's nice that you can come back and actually perform in the shirt so it's not just you thinking you can do it, actually showing you can do it. 

"Other people who maybe didn't believe in you before are thinking 'Maybe she can do it'. Just being able to show to the people that believed in me that it was worth it, that's important to meIt's nice to be performing well and I think there's just been a little bit more freedom which suits my game a bit better and I think you can see it in my play. I'm enjoying camp more so I'm enjoying playing more."

The comparison to where she was at the tail end of last year to where she is now is monumental, in the very best way possible.

To be back playing in an England shirt, let alone starting in a Grand Slam decider is certainly something she doesn’t take for granted.

"It's amazing. I probably didn't expect to be very involved in this Six Nations campaign then being able to come in seeing I'm starting at the home of English rugby in front of what is probably going to be near 60,000 fans, is incredible. Six months ago, I didn't even know whether I was going to play for England again, never mind starting the Six Nations decider against France at Twickenham.

"I'm not a very emotional person, but I've been quite emotional after the games I've played. Against Wales when I came on and got quite a bit of time, I cried in the changing room after that just to myself.

"Again, I think it's that relief. I thought I'd done pretty well out there and I thought I'd done well with the time that I had. Again, last week, I was just relieved. I felt this weight come off, like 'Yeah, you can do it and you deserve to be here'. It was just super nice last week because the girls were buzzing for me, so it was nice to have that support and for people to be around and be like yeah, you did well."

The mental resilience she has shown to make such a positive return despite the setbacks is no mean feat.

"I think that if I hadn't, I wouldn't be able to be back here,” she said while reflecting on how she’s grown mentally in recent months.

"That time over the World Cup, Mo Hunt and I went through the same thing and had a conversation that we knew it was going to be bad, but we didn't realise how bad it was going to be. It was really difficult.

"I'm a big believer that everything happens for a reason. I've gone through that period and hopefully, it doesn't happen again, but if it does, I'll know how to deal with it and if it doesn't, I'll be able to be more empathetic and support other teammates who are maybe going through the same thing. I don't think anybody or anything could prepare you for what that feels like.

“I think it just shows everything that's meant for you won't pass you by. Everything happens for a reason and my reason happened to be that I needed to grow as a person and I needed to grow and be able to become more resilient. I'm not sure I've exactly found the reason yet, but I'm sure it will show itself. I'm back doing what I love, I love playing for England. It makes it even more special and it makes you realise what you have and just appreciate everything and every minute that I get to play in that shirt."

It seems now, after the dust has begun to settle, everything may well have happened for a reason.

Beckett moved from Harlequins to Gloucester-Hartpury during a tough period in her rugby journey.

Had she not made this move, she may have never fully felt the benefits of the new support network that the relocation provided. While she does not doubt that her Quins teammates would have provided her with equally excellent advice and encouragement, the move unearthed the solace she found in Mo Hunt.

As Beckett alluded to earlier, England teammate Hunt also devastatingly missed out on World Cup selection, and while Beckett moved to pastures new in Gloucestershire, the Cherry and White co-captain provided the understanding and support that can only really be offered by someone who’s experienced the same circumstances.

"Mo Hunt was a massive help to me, we spent a lot of time together and having somebody who was going through the same thing, I don't think anybody could even imagine what that felt like unless they were going through it themselves.

"Having somebody who was going through the exact same thing was so helpful. I can't thank Mo enough for that and to see her performing in a white shirt again makes me so proud of her.”

Alongside Hunt, many other familiar faces in the squad have ensured Beckett felt settled on her return to the Red Roses. In particular, childhood friend Aitchison, with whom she made her Twickenham debut many years ago.

Beckett said: "We've known each other since we were little kids, like three or four years old. Our dads played rugby together. She's great, she's really come into her own this campaign. I'm so glad that she's flourishing and finding her voice and her feet. I've known how good she was since she was a kid so for her to be showing everybody else, and the world is starting to realise just how good she is, it's so good to watch.”

Beckett and Aitchison enjoy spending time with each other while in camp, particularly when it comes to a certain virtual racing game.

"We've been playing Mario Kart! She likes to be in her room quite a lot and I like to be out socialising so I've been out of my room quite a lot, playing board games like that and obviously having the singalong with the guitar. She likes to play a bit of Mario Kart, she's very competitive!

"We're both pretty good at Mario Kart. If we were playing Mario Bros, Holly would wipe the floor with me! Mario Kart is pretty even, I'd like to think I'd edge it but I don't know. I’m the same character every time, I'm Donkey Kong!”

While many others in elite sport who experience similar challenges remain reserved, Beckett openly spoke in September about her feelings surrounding World Cup selection.

"A lot of the public only see the best part of sport. They see when you win, they see when you're doing well. They don't see the dark times, they don't see behind closed doors. They don't see the injuries, they don't see the gym sessions early in the morning, or the horrible fitness sessions.

"They also don't see the mental battle that athletes go through. When your whole world is based on whether somebody thinks you're good enough or not and it's one or two people's opinion, it's really difficult. It's so objective. Rugby is a game where you have a lot of different people playing in different ways, it's how you want to balance a team and whatever else. 

"I think it actually allowed me to find some of my own self-worth and discover actually what's important to me. I wouldn't say it was a good thing, but it was a really important thing to go through.”

Beckett’s family have also been a key support network for her, and they will be out in force to support the 24-year-old at Twickenham.

Last weekend however, while Sarah put in an impressive performance in Cork on Saturday, twin sister Kate topped off a memorable couple of days by completing the London Marathon on Sunday.

Sarah and Kate were born three months early due to pre-eclampsia, and Kate ran the marathon for the Action On Pre-Eclampsia charity, a cause that is very close to the family.

"The only game that my family haven't been at this Six Nations was that game which is funny because I was player of the match! I said don't bother coming to any of it anymore because clearly, I play alright when you're not here,” she said with a chuckle.

"I was allowed to leave camp early which I was really grateful for to go and watch her run the marathon. I came back in that evening and everyone was saying 'How did she do' and I couldn't stop beaming about it, I was buzzing.

"I'm so proud of her. We were born three months early and my mum ran the marathon for the unit where we were born and Kate ran for Action On Pre-Eclampsia which is what caused us to be born early. Just raising money for a great charity and I'm so so proud of her. She's done unbelievably well. She set her mind to it and just carried on.”

This weekend, amongst the hustle and bustle of the game at hand, it’s also a time to step back and reflect on how far the game has come.

A group of 800 former Red Roses, including Beckett’s former teacher Burns, will be in the stands to witness the first standalone women’s fixture at Twickenham.

While Beckett is hugely excited to be part of the team to be involved in this historic game, she’s also equally as enthusiastic for the generations who will succeed them.

She said: “I don't think we even thought that it would happen in our playing careers and it's happened quite early in our playing careers that we've got nearly 60,000 at Twickenham. It's exceptional.

"The curve that we're on is exponential and the rate that the game is growing is great. It's just becoming more normal. People don't see it as something that is weird or something that is out there, girls' rugby is going to become normal.

"I can't wait for that generation now, for it to be normal for them so they don't have to go through some of the things some of the girls here went through."

A nod to the future from Beckett then, and after showing incredible mental resolve to navigate her way through the toughest period of her career, she now has every right to look forward with excitement and optimism.