Elle Perry interview: I hope other women see me and know it is possible to be a rugby-playing mum

England's Ellena Perry catches the ball during a match with France at Twickenham in 2020
Elle Perry is back in the England fold after a three-year hiatus - Getty Images/Adrian Dennis

It was an unscripted moment that perfectly encapsulated Elle Perry’s spectacular return to top-level rugby as a mother. The all-action Gloucester-Hartpury loosehead was picking up some Toy Story figurines for her one-year-old son, Bert, from a parcel locker last month when her phone buzzed with an unknown number.

After more than three years away from international rugby – including a hiatus having become disenchanted with the sport – Perry learnt that she had been invited to train with the Red Roses ahead of their Six Nations campaign.

“It was such a shock. I really wasn’t expecting it,” the 26-year-old tells Telegraph Sport. “I knew I’d been playing all right, but I never even thought about it. I’ve just been enjoying my rugby and not putting any pressure on myself. Who wouldn’t be pleased with an England call-up?”

Perry, who won the last of her 10 England caps in November 2020, was convinced she “was done” with rugby when she gave birth to Bert in April 2022. A former Premiership winner with Saracens, she had been one of the most consistent front-rowers in the women’s top flight before her spark for the game ebbed away.

But after less than a year in the wilderness, she watched Gloucester-Hartpury land their maiden league title last June and the opportunity to be part of a women’s rugby revolution was too good to resist.

“I’d fallen out of love with the game – it became a bit of a chore,” Perry says. “But after Bert was born, I was watching women’s rugby on the telly and got a bit jealous of how the game had evolved since I’d left.

“I watched Gloucester-Hartpury win that final and thought, ‘I want to do that again’. The whole occasion, the crowd they had, the build-up, it made me want to be part of it again.”

When she rocked up for pre-season training last summer for “a bit of exercise” Perry set the bar tremendously low. “I said to my family, ‘I don’t even think I’ll get into the team. I won’t even be on the bench’. I was looking at the front row and thinking, ‘I ain’t got a chance’,” she says. “But I couldn’t have asked for a better group of girls to come back to, they’ve been so supportive.”

In a testament to her raw front-row talent, Perry has woven herself into Gloucester-Hartpury’s fabric, helping the club to the top of the table with 11 straight wins. She has been one of the most influential loosehead props in Premiership Women’s Rugby this season, making more line breaks than any other player in her position and having a table-topping 77 per cent gain-line success rate.

When she rocked up to Red Roses’ training last month, Perry witnessed first hand how much the women’s programme had moved on since her last involvement with the squad.

“It felt like there was a lot more… going on,” recalls Perry, who came through the ranks at Welwyn RFC – the unofficial Red Roses talent factory that produced fly-half Zoe Harrison, prop Hannah Botterman and wing Jess Breach.

“There was a lot more support, a lot more staff. I was quite nervous but as soon as I got there I was like, ‘Yes, I’ve been here before’. I knew a lot of the old girls from Saracens who I hadn’t seen for ages, so it was nice to catch up with them.”

One face she was less familiar with was Abbie Ward, the England lock whose return to rugby after giving birth to her daughter, Hallie, has been widely documented. Ward was the first to benefit from England Rugby’s maternity policy and she returned to club rugby for Bristol just four months after giving birth following a meticulous postpartum training programme.

Having drifted back to the sport in much more spontaneous fashion some 15 months after having an emergency caesarean section, Perry’s return to the sport as a mother has been strikingly different. The two, however, found common ground in camp.

“I was asking Abbie about the weaning process because I knew her daughter was around six months old,” Perry jokes. “When I weaned Bert it was such a minefield so I was curious to know how she was getting on.

“I knew Abbie from England before but have never played at club level with her, so it was nice to speak with her and she was so supportive about me being in camp. It was cool to catch up.”

Perry is unequivocal about the message she hopes her return to elite rugby will send to other players at all levels of the female game. “I hope other women see the likes of Abbie and myself and know that it’s possible and that, as a rugby-playing mum, there aren’t as many barriers as there once were.

“I used to think, ‘It’s one or the other’, but that’s not the case,” says Perry, who has brought Bert along to every Gloucester-Hartpury home game this season.

Perhaps he might be watching his mother in a white shirt soon – if he can tear himself away from those Woody and Buzz Lightyear toys.