England Star Vickii stays positive through lockdown

England and Harlequins prop Vickii Cornborough is refusing to allow self-isolation to dampen her spirits with the 2021 World Cup in her sights. We found out more about the former TASS athlete…

Playing sport as a child gave me confidence as an adult

Portsmouth RFC are my home town club and I recently moved back to the area. I played mini rugby with the boys there up to the age of 12 and then moved from minis into the girls’ game. At that stage I wasn’t allowed to play with the boys but I was starting to play contact rugby. And I’d say it was only once we started playing contact rugby that I really started to love the game. My family is massively sporty and my mum and dad encouraged me to play all sorts of sport when I was younger. What I loved about that was the chance to make friends outside of school. I attended the local comprehensive and it was a chance to mix with children from all kinds of different backgrounds. That experience helped me later in life – I’d travel to different parts of the city and start to build up a rugby network outside of school. I’d be thrown into unfamiliar situations and I’d have to talk to lots of different people. These days I find that easy to do and I’m reaping the benefits of those days playing sport as a child and learning so much at a young age.

Vickii Cornborough steps out for England. Credit: The RFU collection via Getty Images

I’ve just turned 30 but I’m still learning

I’m still waiting for that day when I finally think I’m quite good at this game! What I do have is perseverance and I suppose I’ve reaped the rewards as a result of that resolve. You are rewarded for making the various county, regional and national squads as you learn so much more every time you step up a level. It’s about being able to maintain that level and keep pushing yourself forward. That’s no different for me now even though I have an England contract. I still need to be able to perform at the highest level and keep progressing as there is new talent coming through and the competition gets tougher every year. The squad is always changing and the team is always changing you have to evolve with it. That’s as relevant to me now as it was when I was a teenager.

I’ve always tried to strike the right balance between sport and education

Education-wise I come from quite an academic background and my parents were definitely keen for me to focus on my studies and make sure that I completed my courses. I guess up to GCSE level the thing for me was focusing on sport as it was such a positive influence. At 15 or 16, staying active through playing rugby was so important for my physical and mental health. I was working hard at school, completing my coursework and everything like that, and so the release of sport was vital. I think I really began to consider the challenges facing dual career athletes when I moved to college and I was doing A-levels and getting selected for national squads. It was much more about independent learning all of a sudden and that was a big difference from being in school all day, every day.

Without early TASS support who knows where I might be now?

When I started college I became a part of the TASS community for the first time. I used to travel to Portsmouth University for specialist support and advice. I did gym sessions and skill sessions with the TASS accredited coaches and they were very helpful in terms of advising me on how I could manage my academic workload and still do what I needed to do rugby-wise. That’s when I learnt the value of time management. Don’t get me wrong – I wasn’t perfect at it to start with. I was like any other 16 or 17-year-old and there was a lot of trial and error. But there was also a lot of support. I learnt that if you say you’re going to do a certain session on a certain day, then you need to attend that session as it’s a professional environment and the coaches are preparing you for the future. You’re responsible for your own timetable and your own schedule and communication is key on both sides. The support is there but the coaches can’t do the hard work for you – the onus is on you, as the athlete, to take responsibility for your own actions. There were certain expectations that needed to be met. Being exposed to that way of thinking at an early age really set me up for life as a professional athlete. That attitude and that ethos is how I live and breathe today as a senior international rugby player. I’m the master of my own destiny and that dawned on me for the first time when I was a teenager supported by TASS.

University friends are friends for life

When I started my psychology degree at Reading University I was already playing for England Under 19s and Richmond Rugby Club. But I also joined the university rugby club – it was one of the first things I did in Freshers’ Week! The social side of university was hugely important to me and I knew that signing up to the rugby club would be a great way of making friends with like-minded people. I still keep in touch with a lot of the girls from my university rugby days and I loved being around those people. I had the elite athlete support from TASS and Richmond and the social side of the university club. It was the best of both worlds.

TASS continued to play a key role in my career pathway

As a student I simply wouldn’t have been able to afford a gym membership and TASS covered that. There’s one example of how they helped. There was additional financial support available and access to all kinds of invaluable resources. I had to juggle a lot of travel with my studies and not having to worry about finding local training facilities, due to the facilities available to TASS athletes at Reading University, was a huge relief. I’d meet regularly with my TASS contact to discuss my aims, targets and focus and how I was going to achieve what I’d set out to do given the demands of my academic work. I’d be told what new support was on offer and asked to explain how I thought I could be better supported. Those regular touch points were absolutely vital for me as a student athlete. Back then there was even less support available to student athletes and to be able to access the resources that TASS made available was incredibly important.

England has to deliver at the highest level and we will leave no stone unturned in order to do that

That’s non-negotiable. We look at the smallest detail where our performances are concerned. Yes, it’s about scoring tries and putting as many points as possible on the opposition but it’s also about our defence. We ask a lot of questions of ourselves. How good can we be defensively and how many tries can we avoid conceding? What do our set pieces look like? How are we developing as a team? We know we’re only as good as our next game so we are always striving to improve. If our performances get better then we know we’re onto something special and right now the focus is on next year’s World Cup. We share a high-performance mindset and we are always looking at what we can do as individuals to be better than we were yesterday. We want to be at the leading edge of women’s rugby. The RFU have done a fantastic job of supporting us and so we need to repay that faith and deliver on the pitch. Last year’s Grand Slam campaign was one of the key markers on the road towards the World Cup and we’re very proud of what we achieved.

Vickii (centre, holding ball). Credit: The RFU collection via Getty Images

The 2020 Six Nations finished early but we did our job

There was quite a lot of disruption around this season’s Six Nations from day one. It’s the weirdest Six Nations tournament I’ve played in. Our first game, away in France, was played against the backdrop of coronavirus even though it hadn’t really spread by then. Nobody really knew how it would pan out but we were given lots of medical advice even at the stage – the need to wash our hands thoroughly at every opportunity was being hammered home then. It was out of our control by the time we were told we wouldn’t be playing our last game but now that the dust has settled we can be very happy with what we achieved this year. Even though the results speak for themselves we still realise we’ve got a lot to improve upon. We were able to try a number of different combinations and in the build-up to the World Cup it’s all about utilising the talent on the bench and in the squad. We’re very lucky that we have such a talented group of players beyond the 15 who start any one game.

Everyone is adjusting to the new ‘normal’ but as a nation we have to stay safe

It’s hugely disappointing that the Premiership season has been curtailed but everyone is taking on board the full advice of the government guidelines. Now is not the time to be playing rugby. Everybody is socially isolated for a very, very good reason and we want to be able to support that as much as possible. What that actually means for us, as England players and Premiership players, is that there’s a responsibility on all of us to stay as fit as we can and remain as active as possible. We got a lot of warning from our clubs and the RFU about what was likely to happen and so we were able to ensure we had the right provisions and the correct equipment to be able to do our jobs as professional athletes. We filled in surveys about what we had and what we needed and, speaking on behalf of all of the England girls, I think we’re in a good place in terms of being able to self-train. Our adaptive training is working well and there’s a lot that we can do without leaving the house – indoors and in the garden. It’s important for our mental wellbeing that we stay active too. We’re used to training all of the time – and training together – and not doing that could take its toll. Rather than sitting around and becoming lethargic and frustrated that we’re not out there retraining, we need to stay positive.

Social media has a positive role to play during self-isolation

We’re sharing stories about what exercise we’re doing and coming up with inventive ways of being able to train and maintaining the competitive element that’s so important to elite athletes. All of the England players are extremely competitive so within the group we’re setting ourselves weekly challenges. It’s the same within the Harlequins group. We have tasks to complete before the end of each day – like how quickly can you do 100 burpees – and it keeps it fun and competitiv