Emily Scarratt’s face ignites with a smile midway through our video call. She rummages in her pocket, whips out her phone and holds it up towards the camera on her laptop. I can’t help but recoil at the gruesome sight on my screen.
“It’s a bit sadistic in a way”, she says with a hearty laugh, satisfied that she has evoked the reaction she was after. “Laughing helps normalise what happened.”
What happened was a compound fracture and dislocation of her left ankle in September last year. Three minutes into the opening game of the Premier 15s season, Scarratt was defending the line for Loughborough Lightning against Harlequins. Having made a tackle near the breakdown, both teams committed extra bodies to the point of contact. Her leg got caught underneath her body and was compressed at an awkward angle. The result, which she exhibits to anyone with the stomach to see it, was her bone piercing her skin with her foot pointing in an unexpected direction.
“I knew I was in trouble the moment it happened,” she says. “I could tell it was bad by the way all the other girls reacted. Some had their mouths open. Some couldn’t look at all. I knew I’d be spending a good amount of time off the field.”
After surgery, Scarratt was sidelined for more than five months. Her foot was in a cast for six weeks and an orthopaedic boot for another five. To relieve the discomfort caused by the constant use of crutches, she wheeled herself around on a knee scooter which kept her injured leg suspended.
“It was difficult,” she says. “It was especially hard to take because it was so early in the season. I’d hardly played. But I just had to accept it. I couldn’t get frustrated. I let myself enjoy the break.”
She took up residence on her family’s beef and arable farm in Leicestershire, though she is adamant that she is “no farmer, only the daughter of a farmer”. She worked as a commentator during the autumn internationals and lent her name to a podcast called The Good, The Scaz & The Rugby which is co-hosted by broadcaster Elma Smit and the former England centre Mike Tindall.
“It was great to keep a presence in the game,” Scarratt says. “[The podcast] wasn’t something I ever thought of doing seriously and I was initially out of my comfort zone. But I love it. We’ve got loads of positive feedback saying that people love women’s rugby and that it’s a brilliant way to learn about the players. More and more we’re conscious that we’re role models. That is something relatively new in our world.”
When asked to name her childhood heroes, Scarratt does not mention a female rugby player. She cites Leicester Tigers legend Geordan Murphy and Ireland great Brian O’Driscoll, as well as Olympians Kelly Holmes and Cathy Freeman. “It was incredible watching physically strong women doing amazing things on the world stage,” she says. “But I didn’t know that women could play rugby at an elite level.”
This is a well-worn narrative for female rugby players of a certain age. Scarratt is 32 and turned professional only in 2019 when the Rugby Football Union broke new ground by offering full-time contracts to 28 players. Now, apart from being England’s record points scorer with 640 and a recipient of World Rugby’s player of the year award in 2019, Scarratt is also an icon.
“I get young boys and girls telling me that they picked up a ball after watching me on the field,” she says. “Someone got in touch recently to say that they chose me for their class project on their hero. Our sport is so much more visible. We don’t take that for granted. It’s wonderful but it brings pressure. We’re expected to perform.”
England are eight points clear of New Zealand at the top of the world rankings and are on a record 18-match winning streak. They are favourites to win a third consecutive Six Nations and Scarratt has been selected to start at 13 for Saturday’s opener against Scotland in Edinburgh. Her only appearance since her injury was a 16-minute cameo in Loughborough’s 19-19 draw with Gloucester-Hartpury in February.
“I don’t want to look like someone who has come back from a long injury,” she says, admitting to some nerves before her first Test in 11 months. “I don’t want anyone to cut me any slack. I don’t want any excuses.”
Should she stay fit and continue to be selected, Scarratt will earn her 100th cap against Ireland in a fourth round of matches, at Leicester’s Welford Road next month, becoming only the eighth player, male or female, to reach this milestone for England.
“It would be a fairytale to do it in Leicester, but I’m not getting ahead of myself,” she says. “I was supposed to get to 100 last autumn, and that didn’t go according to plan. Things can change very quickly.”
She has photographic evidence to support her claim and is more than happy to share it.