Cokayne ready for school reunion in heat of Rugby World Cup final battle

For one secondary school in rural Manawatu to be supplying three players in the same Rugby World Cup final is notable in itself. Even more remarkable is the fact that one of the trio, Amy Cokayne, will be wearing a white jersey, aiming to be “the villain” who dashes her friends’ childhood dreams of Eden Park glory.

The English-born hooker emigrated to New Zealand with her family when she was nine after her father was recruited by the New Zealand Air Force. As a teenager she was almost claimed by the Black Ferns but ended up choosing the Red Roses instead, placing her in direct opposition to her longstanding friend Sarah Hirini (née Goss) and another Feilding High School former pupil, Georgia Ponsonby.

Hirini, one of New Zealand’s most feted female athletes, is such a good mate she came over to stay with the Cokayne family in Lichfield immediately after the last World Cup in 2017. Even Cokayne cannot quite believe the pair are now poised to do battle on such a lofty stage. “It’s a bit weird but quite cool. She’s a really close friend and our families are quite close. Who would have thought we’d have gone from little old Feilding to selling out Eden Park?”

Given Feilding High School won 53 consecutive games with Cokayne as their captain, maybe it is not quite as unexpected as all that. Coincidentally the Black Ferns’ assistant coach, Wesley Clarke, also hails from Manuwatu and did a fair amount of technical skill work with Cokayne in her younger days.

The way Clarke tells it, however, it was Cokayne who made the biggest impression when he took her along to a coaching course for local male players. “She was teaching the men about how to play hooker and they were saying ‘Who’s this girl?’ She’s a special human as well. Unfortunately she ended up being lost to us.”

Cokayne’s old school coach, Rob Jones, will be among those making the six-hour trip up from Manawatu for the final, with all parties keenly awaiting the special reunion. “It’d be nice to hopefully get a photo of us three and him, considering he played such a huge part in developing all of us,” confirms Cokayne.

Beyond that, though, the 26-year-old is firmly focused on lifting the trophy that eluded her and several teammates in 2017. The Black Ferns’s long-serving scrum-half Kendra Cocksedge is among those hoping to conclude an outstanding career with one final triumph but Cokayne has other ideas. “It’s a World Cup final, you can’t not be pumped up. They’ve got some big stories in their group, with the likes of Kendra playing her final game. She wants a fairytale ending and we want to be the villains of that fairytale.”

The fact her father named his daughter Amy Victoria Fiona Cokayne to ensure her initials were those of his favourite football team, Aston Villa, should be another obvious clue that the Cokayne family is very much English at heart. Her Kiwi upbringing, even so, means she is well aware the Black Ferns will be desperate to retain the trophy on home soil. “You could see from their celebrations after their semi-final how much getting to the final meant to them. It should be a tasty fixture.”

With Scotland’s Hollie Davidson having been appointed to referee the final, the only other lingering questions surround the weather and the team selections. It has been wet in Auckland this week, which might suit England’s forwards at the weekend, and the strong New Zealand No 8 Liana Mikaele-Tu’u has been ruled out with a broken thumb.

For England, injury is also likely to sideline Hannah Botterman and Helena Rowland from the final but Cokayne says the Red Roses pack is quite prepared to grind out an ugly win if necessary. “The media like to say we’ve got a boring driving maul. But if that’s what’s going to win us the game, no one is going to care in 10 years’ time how we won it. It’s about doing the job.

“Our big strapline this week has been: ‘Be You, Be Us.’ We don’t need to do anything weird or wonderful at the weekend to get the win. If everyone does their role we think we’ve got enough in the tank to get the win.”