Ireland v Scotland: Sarah Bonar sets off on long march to the World Cup

Lock has no regrets about quitting rowing for what she sees as rugby's greater camaraderie

Sarah Bonar
Sarah Bonar in action for Scotland against Ireland in 2019. Image: © Craig Watson. www.craigwatson.co.uk

NOT many athletes have willingly given up the chance to compete at the Olympic Games. Sarah Bonar is one who has, and what is more, she has not regretted it for a minute.

A promising rower who represented Great Britain Juniors and Under-23s, Bonar would have been well in the running for a place in Team GB at this year’s Games in Tokyo. But she swapped sports after being persuaded to give rugby a try, and has exchanged her Olympic dream for one about next year’s World Cup.

The road to that 2021 tournament in New Zealand starts in earnest today (Sunday) for Scotland as they embark on their Six Nations campaign with a game against Ireland. The Championship will determine the seedings for the World Cup qualifiers in the autumn, and although Bonar and her team-mates cannot realistically hope to pull of a Grand Slam or anything close, a couple of good results will make their road to the global tournament that bit more straightforward.

“World Cup dream: 2021. I’ve got my eyes set on that,” Bonar said after being named in Scotland’s starting line-up for the match at Donnybrook. “I grew up with an Olympic dream – that was always my goal.

“But I hated the process [in rowing], and I got so miserable with the training. I’m quite an extrovert person, happy and bubbly, and that sort of starts to disappear a bit. 

“I loved competing, but I hated the individuality of the sport, and it was Danielle Waterman [the former England international who coached rugby at Bonar’s college] who said ‘Bonz, you should try rugby’. So I did, on a break from rowing to see if I missed it, and I was like, ‘Wow, this sport’s amazing’. Never looked back.

“If I had made it [to the Olympics], and I’d hated the past eight years of my life, I guess you could argue is it worth it? I don’t know. Everyone’s got such a different mindset on it, but for me that was the real point when I thought ‘No, I’m going for my rugby’.

“In a rowing boat, even though it’s a team effort, you are literally just looking at your team-mate’s back, whereas in rugby there’s a lot of camaraderie on and off the pitch. I’ve never played a sport where your team-mates have your back so much, because it is so physical. And the thing I love about rugby is there’s a position for everybody – you’ve got different shapes and sizes and we need them. That’s probably what makes that team aspect of it so tight, that you don’t really get with other sports.”

Now 25, the Loughborough Lightning lock has become part of Scotland’s leadership group, and was acting captain for the first time in the team’s last outing against Spain when skipper Helen Nelson went off. Her second-row partnership with Emma Wassell is now an established part of the team’s backbone, though she can also play at blindside if required, as was the case in the Scots’ last visit to Donnybrook, the memorable 15-12 result in 2018 which gave them a first away win in the Six Nations in a dozen years.

It was such a close game, and to come away with a win after so many years of not picking it up was something really amazing to be part of, and something we’d look to emulate again,” Bonar recalled.We capitalised on every opportunity that day and made the most of it. It’s about execution and what happens on the day. We came together that day and we’re looking to do the same in this tournament.

“We know that the Irish are going to bring physicality, so we need to shut that down and bring it to them. But we need to not get too focused on them: we want to focus on our own game, bring our intensity, bring our style of play as well.”

After being whitewashed in the 2019 Six Nations, Scotland look to be in far better fettle now, but the road to recovery is a long one. They are so far behind England and France, for example, that when those two teams come to Scotstoun the primary goal will almost certainly be to simply remain competitive.

Getting anything against Italy away is also a big ask, but recent games against Ireland and Wales have been close, so those fixtures are realistic targets. And, having won three away matches since Philip Doyle became coach in the summer, with the most recent being a real morale boost against Spain just two weeks ago, Bonar and her team-mates go into the Ireland match with genuine hope of pulling off a result. It won’t be plain sailing, or even plain rowing, but it can be done.

About Stuart Bathgate 1428 Articles
Stuart has been the rugby correspondent for both The Scotsman and The Herald, and was also The Scotsman’s chief sports writer for 14 years from 2000.