Amy Cokayne is 23 years old and already has 50 caps for England and a Rugby World Cup final behind her. These days she’s a full professional too, having taken up the full-time rugby union life with Harlequins. And while the sport - like much of daily life - is temporarily suspended due to the coronavirus outbreak, Amy remains full of ideas and ambition for the future.
She’s already embracing life as a professional, and explains to The Sportsman that the switch from part-time life alters recovery more than it does workload.
“We don’t actually spend any more time on the field doing training,” Amy tells us, “but it allows you to train at a higher intensity because you have the time to recover when you’re not balancing it with your jobs.” There is also time to do analysis and, just as importantly, “time to switch off also helps because when you do train you can make sure you’re at the level you need to be at for that session. It’s amazing to have that time.
“We’re quite lucky at Quins, we’ve got loads of people in during the day but not having everyone available means you still have to train at night, when we know that nobody trains well at night,” she adds. “It was quite a shock to the system coming back from the Six Nations, where we train during the day, having to train during the night. Being able to train in the day and having the night to yourselves would be a major benefit of everyone being professional.”
While Amy is hopeful that full professionalism across the board will follow, claiming “it’s good for the sport to have everyone on the same page,” she accepts that it could come with a negative impact if not handled correctly.
The older generation in the England squad have had to work throughout much of their time as rugby union players but now there are 18 year-olds with central contracts. “There’s a danger of following suit in the men’s game in that sense – that people aren’t setting themselves up for life post-rugby,” Cokayne believes. “And it just takes one massive injury and that would be you done, with nothing to fall back on.
“Knowing that I’ve got that career in the air force to go back to means my life won’t have to drastically change [when I retire]. I won’t be retiring with nothing to do or no qualifications. I’ve already sorted out my long-term career so hopefully that transition from playing to retirement will be pretty smooth.”
It was a risk for her to take time out to pursue her sporting goals, even though the timing at the start of a new World Cup cycle worked out well, with no guarantee that she would get back into the England set-up. But, she says, “I think we need more emphasis on having something outside of rugby. It’s huge in terms of mental health as well. If you get too wrapped up in the sport, it becomes your whole life and all it takes is an injury or to not be selected, you might all of a sudden be in a pit because rugby is the one thing in your life and it was really important to me to have an external thing to bounce to, if needed.”
She believes the women’s game can learn a lot from the problems of the men’s game as well as its successes, pointing to the central contracts in the England women’s team as an example.
Representation and participation are currently hot topics in men’s rugby, with a move off free-to-air (FTA) television being suggested for the men’s Six Nations. When it comes to women’s rugby, representation and the profile that comes with it are major issues. A move to FTA would generally be “a positive thing”, according to Cokayne.
“The Rugby World Cup 2017 semi-finals and finals were on FTA at prime time and millions watched. I think if you make it accessible people will watch, and the easier it is, the more people will watch. In the past, even we [the players] couldn’t find games so you couldn’t expect people to find it and watch it! A lot of it is the battle that people don’t know it’s on.”
That’s why events like The Game Changer, Quins’ annual celebration of women’s rugby, are so important. This year’s version has, like all other rugby, been postponed, but Cokayne is effusive about the impact events like that can have, saying, “I think things like The Game Changer are massive and the effort and support that Quins put into that is amazing and massive for the game. It’s unrivalled by any other club probably around the world.” It’s a full-scale event: as well as the match, activities for kids and families are planned and the access to the players “leaves a really positive impression of rugby and women’s rugby,” as Cokayne puts it.
Similarly, the next World Cup in 2021 should be a hugely high profile event for the women’s game. The tournament is being held in New Zealand, and Cokayne is looking forward to returning to the country where she developed as a player.
“I owe a lot to New Zealand in terms of my rugby,” she says. “I was able to play women’s rugby from the age of 13, which meant playing with and against Black Ferns from a young age – something you just wouldn’t get in England.
“Being exposed to the level of rugby from such a young age really helped me. It was a baptism of fire and I’m not saying it would work for everyone but it definitely worked for me. It gets you into that high level of training from an early age and learning what you need to do to put yourself into the best position to train and play. I had access to amazing people on and off the field to learn from in so many ways.”
She clearly thrives in a high-level competitive environment, at Quins and England.
“At the minute, my position for both club and country is quite competitive. I went away to do my air force training for a while and when I came back it wasn’t just like, ‘here’s the starting hooker shirt for you again’ at England, which is how I left it when I went to do my RAF training. Lark Davies has made it really competitive to try to solidify herself as the starting hooker and even now I wouldn’t know who is the preference of the coaches between us. That internal competition is really good, it drives you to be better.”
And as a collective, England have a constant focus in the shape of the 2021 Rugby World Cup.
“When we’re in the off periods, like now, everything you do is to be in the best position for the next World Cup. As soon as the RWC 2017 finished, the next goal was to get to the next World Cup and put ourselves in the best position to win that World Cup. Obviously, it was a huge disappointment to make the final and not quite finish the job. So everything we do, every tournament is building towards the World Cup. That’s the ultimate goal, winning the World Cup. Every Six Nations, every autumn series, they’re all stepping stones towards that goal.”
It’s quite frightening to think about what Cokayne might achieve, with such an intelligent attitude and positive environment for club and country. She certainly won’t be letting up any time soon.