For the second blog of our Lockdown Squad series we chat to England Red Roses and Harlequins speed merchant Jess Breach. This lovely lady will be leading the second Zoom workout for our Lockdown Squad on Sunday 24th January and this time it’ll be focused on all things speed. Sign up for our 2021 Lockdown Squad here to keep fit, strong, happy and healthy in time for the return to rugby later in the year.
Jess burst onto the international rugby scene in 2017 with a stunning double hat-trick on debut versus Canada. That game at Allianz Park was the first in which the England Red Roses received match fees and would mark a rapid rise to the top of elite women’s rugby for Jess. She quickly followed up with another five tries against the same opponent on her second cap. A former sprint hurdler at the English Schools Athletics Championships, Jess started playing at age six at Chichester RFC. She won the European Sevens with England U18s in 2014 and 2015 and captained the talent development group side against Canada. She also won a league and cup double with Harlequins after joining them in 2016. In 2018, she moved to England Sevens and was part of the bronze medal-winning team at the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games and played at the World Cup Sevens in San Francisco. In January 2019, she returned to XVs as one of 28 contracted England players. Nine Women’s Six Nations tries saw her top the try scoring charts. She missed the 2019 Super Series due to injury but returned for the autumn. Following the 2020 Six Nations, Jess has scored 22 tries in 13 tests.
Describe your background in athletics and how do you think that has helped your rugby?
Athletics is something I did quite a lot in school and then I started at a club when I was around 12 or 13 years old. I started to race and train more, but I didn’t just do sprints, I did long-jump and high-jump as a kid. As I got older I focused on hurdling and sprinting and my training got more serious and I got a coach. It’s helped my rugby because being fast obviously helps, but it gave me a lot of power and stamina. I built that up through training when I was younger and then going to a game on the weekend I was able to last the game out which is quite rare I think when you’re that age.
Would you recommend young girls try a variety of sports early-on to help with their rugby and to develop transferable skills?
I would definitely recommend young girls take part in as much and as many sports as they can. It’s important to know what you like and what you don’t like. I hated football, I’m not good at it, I don’t like it and I knew that from a young age. But I liked a lot of other sports like triathlon, gymnastics, swimming, sailing and I think there are a lot of skills that can be transferred. Like in netball you have to catch and pass which is the same as in rugby, swimming has a lot to do with stamina. As long as you enjoy it and you have variation within your sport when you’re young, that’s the most important part.
Is speed and agility something that comes naturally to you or have you had to work hard to develop it?
I think speed and agility comes naturally to me, but I have definitely had to work at it and I’ve got better. I’ve learnt how to be more agile, or when to use footwork and when to just use my raw pace. You have to develop your speed throughout; you’re not just going to be quick. You have to keep training it, keep doing drills and focus on getting better. My technique at the beginning wasn’t great and it’s probably still not amazing now, but you have to keep developing your raw speed because you’ve always got more in the tank.
What are some simple drills or exercises girls can incorporate into their training to improve their speed and agility?
When I was younger I didn’t want to do drills, I didn’t want to do a warm-up, I just wanted to get straight into training. But some simple drills like high-knees, stride-outs and repetitions at high volume are really beneficial. For example high-knees within five metres focusing on your technique and speed. That’s really important, getting lots of contacts on the floor, but they need to be quick contacts so you’re not spending lots of time on the floor. It needs to be fluid and bouncy.
What is your secret to spotting holes in the defence to take advantage of?
This can apply to any player really, spotting holes in the defence is about watching the opposition. If someone’s turned their shoulders or their hips then you know they’ll be off balance and there’s a gap to go through. I do sometimes think that forwards they know their strengths, to take the ball up or hand-off and as backs it’s important you know your strengths too. How quick you are compared to your opposite number and you know you can beat them within five metres or 10 metres and having that confidence that you can do it, you can take that defender on. Once you have the confidence to do that nothing else is going to stop you, other than that defender if they’re good enough.
Is speed important for forwards as well as backs? What is your advice to forwards keen to become more mobile?
Speed is important for any player on the pitch regardless if you’re a winger or a front-rower. I do speed with Shaunagh (Brown) and I always try and help her to get better. She enjoys it, she wants to get better and obviously she has an athletics background too so that’s probably why we have that good connection. It’s so important for forwards to have speed, especially their acceleration over three to five metres is really important for example when they get the ball from a nine or if an eight picks from the scrum. Those accelerations are really important for them to get away from a defender as much as it is for a back.
You scored a stunning double hat-trick, six tries, on debut versus Canada – how did that feel?
The feeling of six tries on my debut against Canada won’t ever go away. It was amazing, just alone for it to be my first cap, to then score a double hat-trick was just unforgettable and I can never really put that into words how that actually feels. I think it’s a question that will never escape me throughout my career. To have my family there was amazing and it will always be there forever.
What is your favourite rugby moment so far and why does it stand out?
I’ve got two favourite rugby memories. One is winning a Bronze medal at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games for Sevens. It was fantastic to have my mum and dad there and to share that moment with them. To say that you’re a Commonwealth Games medallist is pretty cool and when I say it out loud it just reminds me, like “oh yea, I did do that” and that’s a brilliant achievement. I think looking back at when I was younger and I probably wanted to go more down the athletics route, the Commonwealth Games was huge, so for me to get picked for that was amazing. And then the other one is going back–to–back Six Nations Grand Slam Champions. Not many people can say that, man or woman, and it’s an amazing achievement for us a team and as individuals.
Talk us through your dream rugby game – which team would you be playing against and how would it play out?
That’s such an interesting question. I’ve never played New Zealand so I would quite like to play them and obviously I’d like it if we performed really well as a team and I got a couple of tries in. I think anyone’s dream and certainly my dream is to go a World Cup and potentially play in a final. Against who I don’t know.
Do you prefer playing on natural grass or a 4G artificial pitch? Why?
I actually don’t have a preference. 4G artificial pitches are renowned to be quicker and speedier so for backs it’s better. I like just a well-groomed pitch, that might sound a bit weird. You know a flat pitch, the grass is nice, it’s not too soggy, not too wet. It hurts a bit falling on a 3G or a 4G pitch for me. I’m probably used to playing more on grass pitches.
We’ve noticed you often wear a plait in your hair for game day. What is your favourite rugby hair style?
Plaits are a very common thing for girls and women who play rugby. It’s to get the hair out of your face and for it to not be a problem. For me I also think it makes you feel a bit prettier and a bit nicer. Look good, feel good, play good you know the saying and I think that’s really important. I’ve always had plaits in my hair even when I was young and playing with the boys my mum would always French plait my hair for training and games. I just love it and I now go for either two Dutch braids which are the plaits that are out, or two into a ponytail. I try and mix it up because I didn’t want it to become a thing that I relied on and that if I didn’t have my hair plaited in a certain way then I didn’t play well. But I like having my hair plaited, it makes me feel pretty.