‘I still keep pinching myself that I can call rugby my job, it’s amazing’ – Portsmouth’s England star Vickii Cornborough
Vickii Cornborough is part of the England Women's rugby squad bidding to win a third straight Six Nations crown; in addition, she has played in a World Cup final and amassed more than 50 caps for her country since her debut in 2015.
But the former Portsmouth RFC and Havant RFC junior still pinches herself to this day at the fact she can play the sport on a full-time basis.
As one of England women's professional contract players, Cornborough can give her full attention to training and playing with the Red Roses and Allianz Premier 15s club side Harlequins.
It's a far cry from her days as a teenager weighing up whether to study for a business or psychology degree.
Cornborough, 31, ended up graduating from the University of Reading with a psychology degree before moving to work for IT company Cloud Direct.
Such has been the growth of the women's game over the past decade, the Bedhampton-based prop has gone from an amateur player, to semi-pro working on an almost pay-as-you-play basis, to now a full-time international star.
But having worked to build a career away from the game, Cornborough has remained with IT company Cloud Direct. Though currently on a sabbatical pre-planned prior to the postponement of the Women's World Cup in New Zealand later this year, she actually enjoys the switch from the often 'intense' rugby environment to focusing on matters in the technology world.
Cornborough explained: 'Where I was in that era where lots of us went to university, got jobs and had other careers, I was lucky enough to be able to build a career outside of rugby.
‘Now, to be able to call that my job, I never would have thought as a 16-year-old coming into England at age group levels that I’d ever be able to say it was my job and I get paid to play rugby.
‘I’m still pinching myself years and years down the line, it’s amazing.
‘I’ve always kept ties with my career and other work as well.
'When I graduated from university I went into IT and worked in their commercial teams.
‘Up until relatively recently, I think it was February, I’ve gone on a sabbatical to focus full-time on rugby but I was still working a couple of days a week with Cloud Direct just because I enjoy it so much.
‘I actually quite like the balance of having something outside of rugby to focus on, because being in the rugby environment can be quite intense sometimes.
‘I’ve always found it beneficial for me and my mental well-being, being able to chop and change between having work conversations and working with clients that have nothing to do with rugby - it gives me a bit of a break from the rugby side of things.
‘This year we were meant to go to a World Cup so I took a sabbatical pre-empting being away for the majority of the year with the World Cup.'
Cornborough, who is preparing to face Italy in the Women's Six Nations this weekend as England look to seal a spot in the final on April 24, was first awarded a full-time contract prior to the last World Cup in Ireland four years ago.
The Red Roses ended up losing to New Zealand in the final and Cornborough was then awarded a new pro deal in 2019.
She admits it’s been great to witness the sea change in women's sport as a whole in recent years - a growth which is only going to continue.
The England prop, who won her 57th cap in last weekend’s opening Six Nations win against Scotland at Doncaster, said: ‘You’re starting to see that shift with a lot of women’s sports, especially with rugby, football and cricket as well.
‘I know kind of having been part of those conversations within rugby, the growth is in the women’s game for England.
‘What they’re doing to be at the forefront of growing the game and professionalising the game for the women’s team has been unbelievable.
‘You see that in terms of the results for us and when we go into competition you see that in just the sheer amount of athletes they’re able to produce and then maintain.
‘It’s just amazing to be treated as a player, it’s amazing for us the opportunities it then opens up as well - both on the pitch and off the pitch.
'On the pitch, I’ve been able to travel to so many different countries, been able to compete in tournaments all over the world, I’ve made friends all over the world.'
Cornborough has progressed from first being taken to play on Portsmouth's Rugby Camp pitches by father Paul at the age of five to winning the Six Nations with England, picking up a World Cup runners-up medal and registering more than a half-century of international caps.
Yet despite all that, she will never forget her roots.
Cornborough said: 'I’m still in touch with my old coaches who taught me how to play rugby as well. Just being able to have that support from your city where you’re from, especially now I live there as well after moving back home after 10 years of being away, that’s really special to me.
‘Just the support I get from the local community and rugby on the south coast. It’s just not Portsmouth; again, looking at Petersfield and looking at Havant and what they’re doing to support what I can do to give back to support them is really important.
'I definitely think my roots are in Portsmouth Rugby Club.
‘Obviously, with the various lockdowns etc, I’ve used Havant Rugby Club where we couldn’t travel a lot.
‘I’ve been down to Havant quite a lot because I live quite close. They’ve got a really good 3G pitch there so it’s state-of-the-art facilities around the corner from me.'
While Cornborough has been one of the fortunate elite players who have remained largely able to play amid the pandemic, she has a good idea of the struggles grassroots players have faced while the sport has remained halted.
In the men's game below Championship level, competitive matches have not been played for more than a year now.
Cornborough's husband, Will Brock, plays for Havant and she's seen at close how tough the past 13 months have been for him.
But she hopes, with grassroots training now able to resume, finally things can start getting back to some sort of normal at all levels.
Cornborough said: 'My husband is also a rugby player, again he was from Portsmouth originally. We actually played in the same team when we were 10 or so, although we don’t really remember each other from back then.
‘He’s not played rugby in over a year, he went back to training the other day, they’ve lifted the rules on outdoor training.
‘It’s not even just the community game, anything that’s below the Premiership, nobody has been able to play and that must have been so frustrating.
‘As much as lockdown massively affected me and the way I’ve trained, I’ve been so lucky over the last year where I’ve still been able to play.
‘After the first lockdown there were a few months where I wasn’t able to play but come August time I was back playing again.
‘For me, from last August, other than the odd adaptations here or there, it’s been business as usual for me.
‘It must be so exciting for the community game to start getting back up and running again.
‘Rugby is my life and for good reason. It definitely brings people together.
‘The rugby family is everything to me, it’s definitely how I’ve built my friendships and my support circle over the years.
‘It’s good to see that rugby is getting back playing again in a safe manner.'