Exclusive interview: Meet the remarkable Amy Cokayne – Red Rose stalwart and RAF flying ace

Amy Cokayne loves the distraction her career in the RAF give her 

Credit: PAUL GROVER

Once upon a time – not so long ago – it was the norm for English female rugby players to lead a double life, juggling a professional career with their sporting commitments.

But times have changed. The introduction of permanent contracts by the Rugby Football Union for women’s XVs players at the start of 2019 mean it is becoming more unusual now for young players to pursue a career outside of rugby.

Amy Cokayne, however, is happy to be part of that fading breed. At just 24, she has already accomplished more than most would hope for in a sporting career, having played for her country in a World Cup and been part of a side that has won consecutive Six Nations Grand Slams while notching up 51 Test appearances at hooker. The 52nd comes on Saturday, in an autumn friendly against France.

But all that is before we get to her other life – as an officer in the Royal Air Force.

When the list of player names to be awarded those 28 precious full-time contracts was announced, Cokayne had only just started her military education at the RAF officer training school at Cranwell.

Amy Cokayne scores a try during England's 66-7 win over Wales in March 

Credit: GETTY IMAGES

Although the tradition of service runs deep in Cokayne’s family, with her father a squadron leader in the RAF and her brother a lance corporal in the Four Rifles regiment, it was the experience of the 2017 World Cup – and the cutting of women’s professional contracts following that tournament – that made the then 21-year-old realise that she needed experience outside of her sport.

Cokayne had spent much of her childhood in New Zealand while her father was seconded from the RAF to Royal New Zealand Air Force and, having been immersed in rugby from such a young age, she believes her life in the services has given her a new outlook.

“Losing the 2017 World Cup final was quite tough,” she told the Telegraph.

“I suppose you spend so much of your time planning for that one event. You get all the messages saying, ‘We’re still so proud of you’, but you don’t feel that pride. Even now when people bring it up, I shut the conversation down and I don’t want to talk about it. I had this feeling of, ‘What do I fill my time with now?’

“That influenced me to join the Air Force because if rugby doesn’t go the way you want and that is all you have, then your whole life isn’t going right and that can be a dark place to be.

“It is really good to have something else in my life. We are not on long contracts here, I could get an injury today and that would be my rugby career over, but I now know I have that life balance. I know I will always have a career and I will be able to pay my mortgage.”

The issues Cokayne highlights regarding the uncertainty of life after professional rugby and the need for balance is something that is discussed more in relation to the men’s game.

Despite the RFU’s financial woes and cuts to funding for Premier 15s clubs, the England women’s contracts have been untouched and, as a result, a new generation who have known nothing but professionalism are emerging.

Cokayne notes how younger players, such as 21-year-old back row Sarah Beckett, are completely focused on rugby, but is content that her life in the RAF has afforded her perspective.

“I spoke with Sarah and she talked about how she hasn’t got anything outside of rugby at the minute,” she says. “She is doing everything she can to put herself in the best position on the rugby pitch, whereas I am the opposite with my whole life not being rugby anymore.

“It is about finding a balance. We have young people who are 17, 18 and have the promise of a professional rugby contract, but they are not long-term contracts and there isn’t any life security. It is important for people to have something outside of rugby, but I do see the balance. If you are good enough to give it a go for a few years when you are young, you can work from there.

“We have that weird balance in the squad with people like [scrum-half] Mo Hunt and [fly-half] Katy Daley-Mclean who were teachers before they got their professional contracts. They could fall back on that when their rugby finishes, but then we have young players who haven’t. We are on weird ground at the minute.”

Cokayne speaks with enthusiasm of the leadership skills she has developed in her officer training and believes it has made her a better team-mate.

“It means I think about things a bit more – not just about yourself but about how different things might help other people,” she says. “Because I was very young at the 2017 World Cup, it was about getting myself in the right place. I think when you get older and have more experience, it is about how what you’re doing can affect the whole team. That is the biggest learning from that.

“I had to do a talk the other week on resilience and I think that – and a sense of perspective – is the biggest thing that came out of joining the RAF.

“After we lost the 2017 World Cup, I was very sad, but when you put that into the grand scheme of things – I am still healthy, still have a roof over my head – things aren’t so bad.”