‘It messed with me’ – Italy’s Sara Seye on body image battle as a teenager

Rome: Sara Seye is a good indicator of the challenge that awaits Italy against England in the Women’s Six Nations on Sunday. Italy’s starting tighthead for the encounter will line up against a generation of Red Roses who have been carefully nurtured through a tried-and-tested player pathway and primed for the international stage.

Seye’s journey to the top has been strikingly different. She was just 18 when she left her home in Gardone Val Trompia, a mountain village nestled in Italy’s Lombardy region, and moved to England to fulfil her dream of becoming an international rugby player.

“My mum was like, ‘Are you sure? Don’t you want to go to uni here?” says Seye who, remarkably, had only picked up a rugby ball four years earlier. “But I wanted to grow as a person. I learned English. I learned stuff about life. I was living on my own in London. It opened my eyes to different things and now when I see the team sheet, it’s definitely paid off. It’s been a rollercoaster.”
Like many teenage girls, Seye was body conscious growing up. “I played a lot of sports but never felt comfortable,” she admits. “All the girls around me were slimmer and smaller. When I played volleyball I hated the short shorts – you don’t want to wear them if you have thick thighs – but that’s the kit they give you and you just have to go for it. As a young girl, it sort of messed with me.”

After tagging along with her brother to Rugby Lumezzane, a club located 66 miles to the east of Milan, her love-affair with the oval-shaped ball began. With her bigger frame, she was naturally suited to the sport’s physical demands, but quickly became frustrated by the lack of playing opportunities in her homeland (Seye did not even play in a full XV team until she was 18). She does not hold back when assessing the gulf between the Azzurre and Red Roses. “I feel like an England under-20 women’s team could have a good game with our top domestic team here, Valsugana Rugby Padova,” she says, bluntly.

Walking around Parma’s cobbled streets, there are next to no signs that two international rugby teams are in town. Yet Seye, one of one of 24 female players now contracted professionally by the FIR, is cautiously optimistic that Italy’s recent success in the men’s Six Nations can lead to more eyeballs on the women’s game. “More people want to come and watch us,” she insists. “We need people to know we’re here. We don’t have the same set-up and pathway that England has, but women’s rugby in Italy is growing.”
Seye is one of four members of Italy’s squad now playing in England, where the 23-year-old has been one of the most consistent performers for Ealing Trailfinders in their debut season in the women’s top flight. Trailfinders, who sit sixth in the Premiership Women’s Rugby table, have the second worst scrum success rate on their own feed this season (86 per cent). But when Seye is involved, that figure jumps to 94 per cent.

Having honed a solid scrummaging technique, Seye is eyeing her next big goal: to bulk up. At 78kg, the Italian, who converted from back row to prop four years ago, sits in the lighter end of the scale for a female international front-rower. By comparison, England’s Hannah Botterman, whom Seye will go up against in the scrum on Sunday, tips the scales at 101kg.

In women’s sport, conversations around an athlete’s weight can often require a great deal of sensitivity. It is why Seye is grateful to have Trailfinders coach Giselle Mather in her corner. Mather is respected figurehead in the women’s game, who scouted her as an 18-year-old at her former club Wasps.

“I call Giselle ‘Mum’. She’s always trying to get the best out of me,” says Seye. “She’s special. She’s only my third female coach that I’ve ever had in rugby, but women coaches get what a woman goes through, like periods and stuff. They just check in with you a bit more. They’re more approachable and that bit more open about things.”
For someone who experienced body insecurities growing up, how does Seye feel about having to pack on more muscle? “I’m still a bit uncomfortable about it to be honest,” she admits. “I’m trying to understand that if this is what I want to do, then I need to accept it.”

For now, Seye, who has been favoured ahead of 95-capped Italian tighthead Lucia Gai for Sunday’s contest, is relishing the chance to go up against England’s pack. “If I can get it 90 per cent right, especially in the set-piece, against the best team in the world, I’ll be happy,” she says.