Packing Down With Vickii and Shaunagh
We’re sat in the plush bar at The Lensbury, enjoying the warmth and relaxing in comfort. Immaculate lawns roll away outside with the Thames trickling past in the distance. It’s a serene setting and a big change from just a few minutes earlier as we stood outside, fighting off the chill and watching the Red Roses in training. Opposite me one player who received her 50th cap at the weekend and her colleague, for both club and country, in the front row. Vickii Cornborough and Shaunagh Brown take the sofa opposite and before we begin I know, this is going to be a fun interview!
“I’ve been asked that question quite a few times this week” Vickii tells me, when I ask her how it felt to get her 50th England cap. “Going into last weekend I’d geed myself up so much that it was just the same as every other game. I didn’t expect that much fuss, but within the squad, from my friends & family and even the fans and the rugby community… it was really overwhelming!”. Her family may not have been present for the game, but fiancé Will earned himself some serious brownie points organising friends and family for a surprise party to celebrate!
I have to ask whether she ever dreamed about wearing the white shirt when she was playing minis rugby in Portsmouth. “I didn’t think I’d ever play for England, but having a supportive family kept me pushing on. Even as an 18-year-old I never dreamed it could be a full-time job, that it would even be a possibility. For the next generation coming through it can be a career. It still gives me goosebumps thinking about it!”
Shaunagh’s route to rugby was a little different. A latecomer to the game, she has rocketed to the very top tier of talent with her impressive all court performances. “I had my first half a season with my local club – Medway Rugby Club. With my athletics it has been full on training, but this was just once a week, I thought I could chill out a bit. I got bored and started writing my own gym programmes, then I found myself playing for the county in my first season. It was almost too easy, if I touched the ball it felt like I would score. I joined Harlequins and that was my first full season of rugby, that’s where I met Vickii. She was an international prop, but just a normal person! She’s constantly on me to learn more, giving constant feedback but as much as she knows she’s the epitome of work smarter not harder. If it’s important Vickii will know. If not…”
It’s a great example of the close bonds and family feel that permeate this England squad, throughout our conversation Vickii and Shaunagh riff off each other effortlessly, sharing stories and jokes and making me feel incredibly welcome despite their tiredness after training.
We talk about how the move to central contracts hasn’t necessarily changed how much the players train, but has allowed them to do so together, and to not have to stress about fitting it in alongside a day job (though both Cornborough and Brown have careers outside the sport – Vickii in business development for a cloud computing firm and Shaunagh as a firefighter). Working as a unit gives the England coaches something to think about too. “we’re constantly improving together as a unit. Our whole front row, me Vick and Amy Cokayne – we can improve at club and then it’s an easy transfer. Hopefully it pushes the coaches to make difficult decisions, do we want a unit that’s together day in day out or do we want to have a go with different combinations?”
“I was out of rugby for six months” says Cornborough. We’re talking about the work that goes on behind closed doors, that the fans never see. “When you’re injured you probably work ten times harder than anybody on the pitch. Although I was injured, and I wasn’t involved in the autumn internationals I was at club every day rehabbing. Two weeks post-op I was back in the gym lifting weights. For my mental health it was such a good thing to do, being around teammates. Shaunagh and the other girls were off for the internationals but they’d drop in so I didn’t lose touch at all. If I wasn’t full-time I wouldn’t have been able to put that effort in or have access to those facilities”.
As the Red Roses get ready to face Scotland, I suggest there might be a bit of banter between the internationals at Harlequins. “In general there is! In training during the day it will be internationals and a few students so we’ll do games live England versus the rest of the world. We go at each other constantly! When I am against someone I’m against them.” Brown is smiling as she says it, but it’s clear she means it too. “If you’re got a different coloured shirt on, when that whistle goes we’re not friends! Afterwards they’ll be like ‘oh you did this to me…’ sorry, didn’t even know! On Sunday, if you’re wearing a blue shirt you’re not my friend. We can shake hands and have a cuddle after the final whistle goes, but until then, Vick’s my only friend!”
“We’ve got a couple of teammates in the squad” Vickii adds “as have a load of the other clubs. Scotland have a good spread of players across the TP15s so we know the Scotland players as well as we know ourselves. That feeds into our prep for those games and helps us to build the England gameplan. If you know your enemy…”
“Sun Tzu! Know your enemy!!” Shaunagh interjects!
Scotland, and the other home nations may be well known quantities because of the number of players plying their trade in the Tyrrells Premier 15s, but France are much les so and gave the Red Roses a stern test on the opening weekend of the tournament. “In the past it’s been the decider for the Six Nations so it’s good and bad. For entertainment value it might be a bit of an anti-climax, people will think it’s a done deal now, it absolutely isn’t! On the other hand it’s a test for us to try out new combinations, we did that and we beat them, which is a real boost!”
Vickii is quick to add to the points her fellow prop makes “It’s a real testament to the work the Six Nations are doing building the competition. If you look at the other games played this weekend – Scotland v Ireland was so close, there are a load of threats in that team we need to be mindful of any play to our strengths to overcome.”
“The rest of the competition is going to be difficult, especially Italy as the last game. They came second last year and beat France. The level of competition is going up every year and all bets are off!”