It was not only the 34,235 fans inside Eden Park that were captivated by a record-breaking opening matchday of Rugby World Cup 2021.
Out on the pitch last Saturday, England prop Sarah Bern was determined to take everything in against Fiji, from the flamethrowers that greeted the teams’ arrival to the noise emanating from the stands.
“To be part of the World Cup is amazing in itself,” Bern told World Rugby.
“But then to have a massive crowd and a lot of people supporting and hearing the reaction to what's happening in the game, it just fuels you a little bit.
“It creates a really good, exciting atmosphere around you, and it helps you through those times when [you think] it's going on a bit too long and you probably want the ball to go out so you can have a break!”
Bern is not a player who needs any extra motivation to do well at RWC 2021. A member of the England team that lost the final to the Black Ferns in Belfast five years ago, the tighthead prop has been an integral part of the Red Roses’ journey to the top of the World Rugby Women’s Rankings powered by Capgemini.
Had RWC 2021 not been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, however, there is a chance the Bristol Bears forward would have missed out on her second Rugby World Cup.
A shoulder injury kept Bern out of the Women’s Six Nations 2021 and ensured she had to wait almost exactly a year between winning her 36th and 37th England caps.
“I’m thankful now for those harder times I've had because if it ever seems like I'm getting too focused on rugby, I just need that little reminder that, hey, you might not have been here,” Bern said.
“Anything can happen so be thankful that you're here and, you know, keep smiling because this is what you love doing.
“So, for me, I'm thankful for those times. I potentially was a bit touch and go before the World Cup got moved back but now it fuels me and it keeps me in a positive mindset.”
Bern enjoyed a typically all-action 51 minutes on the Eden Park turf on Saturday, contributing six carries, five tackles and stealing possession once at the breakdown.
The 25-year-old also helped to anchor a perfect England scrum, and that is an area of her game she has worked at tirelessly since RWC 2017.
Bern admits that five years ago, her primary focus was to hold her own in the front-row as the youngest member of the Red Roses squad and a recent convert to prop.
“It was a bit of a whirlwind that year for me,” Bern said, “learning to play that position, potentially not going to a World Cup, then suddenly going to a World Cup and then playing in it.
“It was all quite crazy, and I probably didn't take in as much as I wanted to. I was just so caught up in trying to not go backwards in the scrum, basically.
“I think definitely when we lost in that final, it was very hard hitting and it was a massive moment to be like, ‘I don't want to feel like this again’.
“So, the last five years, it's been about using that as fuel and doing everything I can possibly do to make sure I'm in the best place I can be if that opportunity ever came around again.”
Bern cites former Red Roses forwards coach Matt Ferguson, as well as past and present male Bristol Bears props Mark Irish and Kyle Sinckler as influences in her journey to becoming a “scrum geek”.
“I think you've got to be really tough, mentally tough, to play in the front row these days. You've got to be able to be fast and dynamic but also hold up a whole scrum,” she said.
“It's definitely a challenge. It's not just about brute force, it's also learning the craft of it. You've got to think a lot, ‘Well, what are they doing? How can I counteract that? How could I manipulate this? How could I stop that?’
“It's much more of a thinking game than I think people realise. So, it's hard and the only way you can get better at it is to do it.
“There's no other way, no amount of one-v-ones or weights will help you. It's purely just being in the scrum and actually being lifted up in the air or pushed on the floor.
“That's how you learn about and yeah, it's a lot of hard work, a lot of analysis, but I love it now.”
Her transformation is not one that has gone unnoticed by her team-mates. “Scaz [Emily Scarratt] is always like, ‘God, you just love it, don’t you?’”
Inspiring the next generation
Although still only 25, Bern is now one of the senior players in Simon Middleton’s squad and if selected for Saturday’s match against France will win her 48th cap.
In the last five years she has witnessed the growth in support for the team and says that ahead of RWC 2021 she received messages of encouragement from “people who might not have done so” previously.
Bern is now determined to set an example for those watching on from home, starting with Le Crunch in Whangārei on Saturday.
“If I can help inspire one little girl or one little boy to go out and achieve whatever they want to achieve, or feel more confident or feel happier, that for me is a massive reason why I do the sport,” she said.
“As much as I enjoy it, they're the next generation and I think for kids it's hard, especially in the society we live in, to be a certain way or do certain things when actually it's all about your happiness.
“So, if I can help one child out and inspire them to reach their dreams, then for me, that's a goal ticked. And hopefully I can continue to do that and we as a squad can continue to help inspire the next generation.”