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Reaching new heights

The Rugby Centurions Podcast will feature many of the game’s biggest names, men and women who have breached the remarkable benchmark of 100 international caps. Their wisdom, tales, achievements and regrets will regularly be shared on The XV.

Tamara Taylor has got used to hitting the heights during her 115-cap career for England. The second row has appeared in four World Cups and was a towering figure in the triumphant 2014 team.

But even she struggled to cope when, in 2019, she was part of a fundraising team who set the world record for the highest game of rugby ever played – at more than 20,000ft – on Mount Everest, describing it as “the most difficult thing I’ve done in my life”.

“Playing international rugby, you know what it’s going to feel like, you know it will be physically tough, you know you can do a certain amount of training that will impact you positively in a game, whereas I’ve never been that high up before,” the 39-year-old tells The Rugby Centurions Podcast.

“I did altitude training, I slept in an altitude tent, I went walking, but those bits in isolation didn’t combine to make me feel like they made any difference when I was on the mountain.

“I just felt like, ‘What is happening here? I can’t breathe, I’ve got a massive headache, my bag doesn’t weigh anything but it feels like it weighs 30st. Why can I only put one foot in front of the other three times in a row before I have to stop and try to get my breath?’ It was something I’ve never experienced before and having that doubt every day was the emotional bit that got to me.”

Tamara Taylor
Tamara Taylor has soared for England despite being plagued by self-doubt (Photo by Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images)

Doubt is a recurring theme for Taylor, which is surprising to learn considering she is a Test centurion. But she hopes that there are now the mechanisms and support in place to help those players hoping to match Taylor’s achievements in the game.

As we talk about mental health more in sport, you are allowed to tell people you’re nervous or you’re not confident. You don’t have to hold that in.

Tamara Taylor

“I have spent a lot of my rugby career doubting myself,” she said. “You’d think I’d be over it by now.

“You worry about selection, you worry about performance. It’s part and parcel of elite sport where quite a lot is out of your control. It’s not something you expect of elite athletes but then it makes it more difficult for that athlete to talk about it.

“Some people are very confident but you get quite a few who hide their mental anguish, their doubts. But as we talk about mental health more in sport, you are allowed to tell people you’re nervous or you’re not confident. You don’t have to hold that in.”

Tamara Taylor
Tamara Taylor is carried aloft by her England team-mates after winning her 100th cap (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Taylor made her England debut off the bench more than 15 years ago – and she was thrown in at the deep end: New Zealand, away. They don’t come any tougher – or bigger – than the Black Ferns. “I remember the massive panic of, ‘Am I going to be OK?’ because these girls are really good and really big. I was probably 10kg lighter than I am now, I was quite a slight player. It was just, ‘OK, get your head down, just do your job. What’s the game plan, what do you have to do, what’s your role?’

“I can remember being in the physio room before the game and the doc asked how I was feeling. I said, ‘I’m really scared I’m not going to be able to do this’. He said, ‘Just pretend you’re a lion, get your inner lion out’.

“I remember being stood on the sidelines thinking, ‘I’m a lion, I’m going to do this’. But I don’t remember anything about the 20 minutes I was on for. It was sheer panic of running round, trying to make sure I did the best I could, get to the breakdown, pick and go when it was on, get out and support someone. Amy Turner scored a try and I thought, ‘We’re not actually that far behind these girls’, so it was twofold joy of getting my first cap and also realising we could actually close the gap on this team I thought were untouchable.”

I’m still holding out that there’s a New Zealand-England final that I’m in and we win.

If that match showed Taylor that England were closing the gap on the Black Ferns, they couldn’t quite bridge it, losing the 2006 and 2010 World Cup finals to New Zealand. But those defeats, especially the 13-10 2010 heartbreak, created a steely resolve in Taylor and Co that they wouldn’t share the same fate in 2014.

“That resilience helped us to win in 2014,” she said. “Yes, we didn’t play New Zealand in the final but, with that group of players, it would have been a different game if we had played them. The place we were in mentally was a lot better because of that loss in 2014. I’m still holding out that there’s a New Zealand-England final that I’m in and we win.

“When the final whistle went in 2014, I just stood still in the middle of the pitch and thought, ‘Thank God we haven’t blown it’. Having been so close four years previously, the overriding emotion is utter relief.”

Fast forward three years and Taylor earned her 100th cap, against Wales, but it was only afterwards that the achievement hit home.

“The big moment for me was when the girls gave me a loads of cards and a present,” said Taylor. “Izzy Noel-Smith wrote me a song and performed it after the game in the team meeting room. That was the most special part for me, the effort the girls went to to make me feel special. That was really something.”

The Rugby Centurions Podcast will feature many of the game’s biggest names, men and women who have breached the remarkable benchmark of 100 caps. Their wisdom, tales, achievements and regrets will be shared on The XV each week.

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