RAF and England hooker Amy Cokayne discusses her dual ambitions on and off the pitch

Amy Cokayne balances military career with rugby

The Cokayne family have a rather unusual Christmas tradition. Before the big meal, dad Ian takes on his children Thomas and Amy in a bench-press competition. “It makes you feel like you’ve earned Christmas dinner,” England hooker Amy Cokayne says. “We’re an extremely competitive family – it comes from my dad.”

That competitive side is what saw Cokayne first pick up a rugby ball. She wanted to do any sport that Thomas did, so when he started playing rugby she followed, continuing her progress when the family moved to New Zealand with her father’s work.

The combativeness has served her well for she made her England debut as a teenager – quite a feat when playing in the front row – and by the end of last year’s Six Nations had played in 40 consecutive Tests.

The 22-year-old has followed another family tradition by joining the military. Her grandfather was in the Army, her dad was in the Army then commissioned into the Royal Air Force (RAF), and her brother is also in the Army. Having previously been in the RAF Reserves, Cokayne graduated as a pilot officer in December after seven months of training at RAF Cranwell. Don’t be confused by the ‘pilot’ title; she doesn’t fly planes, it’s simply the first officer rank in the RAF.

Amy Cokayne balances military career with rugby

Training day: Amy Cokayne on an RAF exercise (Paul Saxby/Uk MoD Crown)

The Cokaynes’ competitive streak comes out again when she talks about being commissioned into the RAF. “My brother has to salute me!” she laughs. “I doubt we’ll ever be in that situation – we’d both have to be in full uniform to salute – but it would be funny.”

There’s the obvious family connection, but what is it about a career in the military that appeals to Cokayne? “I’ve always been around it. Then when I was at uni, I met more people involved. I played for Lichfield and there were quite a few Air Force girls there. The RAF came up in conversation a lot and it’s a good career, quite an exciting job. I wouldn’t like to be stuck at a desk, working in an office nine to five. I wanted to play rugby but still have a good career, and the RAF support that. It’s the best of both worlds.”

That is true in 2019, but last year Cokayne didn’t play a rugby match between Wasps’ Tyrrells Premier 15s semi-final defeat by Harlequins in April and the league game against Worcester on 16 December. She needed to fully commit to her officer training, so rugby took a backseat in the second half of the year – and she believes that has revived her passion for the game.

“Ever since my mid-teens I hadn’t had a break from rugby, so it wasn’t really a hard decision,” she says. “After the disappointment of the World Cup (England lost in the 2017 final to New Zealand) and the move from Lichfield to Wasps, a break was the best thing for me.

Amy Cokayne balances military career with rugby

Uniform day: Amy Cokayne during her graduation ceremony at RAF College Cranwell
(Gordy Elias)

“For the first couple of months I didn’t miss rugby at all. I did a few pre-season sessions and passed the ball about a bit now and then, but we didn’t always get weekends off and I couldn’t go to training, so I decided not to focus on rugby.

“Then when I watched the autumn Internationals I was ready to get back to it.”

This year it’s about balancing the two: rugby and her military career. She’s swapped RAF Cranwell for Brize Norton, where she has started her training to join the RAF Police. This time, though, she will be playing rugby alongside her training and has been part of England’s Six Nations campaign.

While England have introduced full-time contracts, Cokayne doesn’t have one. It’s not that she doesn’t merit it, but at this time the goal is to complete all her RAF training. She is in the Elite Player Squad but employed by the RAF.

“My rugby boss, Nicky Ponsford, sat down with my RAF adviser and what they came up with is the best of both. I need to get through my RAF training but they will give me as much time off as I need for rugby.

“It’s good. When we were contracted before (in 2017), it’s easy to get sucked into a rugby bubble. It’s good to have the difference of doing something else in your life; you stay fresh because you’re not constantly thinking about rugby.”

Still, once this block of training is complete, Cokayne hopes she can focus on rugby full-time by getting elite athlete status from the RAF, particularly with the 2021 World Cup on the horizon.

Amy Cokayne balances military career with rugby

In the clear: Amy Cokayne makes a break against Ireland (Getty Images)

She’s keen to take skills she’s learnt in the military and employ them in rugby too. The training might be different – one RAF exercise involved walking for 18 hours a day for a week, which is a jarring contrast to an 80-minute rugby match – but there are crossover areas.

“The main one is leadership. We talk in the RAF about the task, the team and the individual, and the best way to balance those three. In rugby and the military, the task is the primary goal and if we get the individual working to their best, the team works best together. It’s about making sure we look after people.”

One thing Cokayne hasn’t improved is her tidiness. Yes, she’ll keep things in order when with the RAF, but she’s pretty untidy elsewhere – as her England team-mates know.

“I’m the messiest person ever, even my mum says so. She thought I’d go off to training and return as an OCD neat freak, but I’m as messy as ever. With England I room with Justine (Lucas) and she’s not tidy either. Other girls say, ‘How can you live like this?!’”

It’s somewhat fitting that she’s residing in the Officers’ Mess at Brize Norton!

This article originally appeared in the February 2019 issue of Rugby World magazine.

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