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Lisa Cockburn: 'The World Cup suddenly became out of reach and that really floored me'

By Gary Heatly
CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA - OCTOBER 28: Players of Scotland pose for a photo with the WXV 2 2023 match between United States and Italy at Athlone Sports Stadium on October 28, 2023 in Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo by Johan Rynners - World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images)

There were many high points for Scotland women’s rugby supporters during 2023: Francesca McGhie’s wonder try versus Ireland, Sarah Bonar’s solo score versus Japan, WXV 2 glory and six Test wins on the spin to name just a few.

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And right up there in that list was Lisa Cockburn’s return to action after her injury nightmare which had seen her have 18 months out with a ruptured ACL and then a torn plantar fascia.

The front-rower has now been back playing regularly for six months and is a key part of the extended Scotland squad that is currently building up to the Guinness Women’s Six Nations.

The Leicester Tigers player is continuing to make up for lost time after being robbed of a chance to play at Rugby World Cup 2021 – played in 2022 – in New Zealand as well as other experiences.

In early 2022, Cockburn played her part as, after a long qualification process, Scotland defeated Colombia in Dubai to get the nation to a World Cup for the first time since 2010.

As a result, there was a real buzz around the DAM Health Stadium – now known as Hive Stadium – in Edinburgh in March 2022 when top dogs England came to town for that year’s Six Nations opener.

England would go on to win 57-5 as they kickstarted what would end up being a Grand Slam for them, but the result was not the only negative for Cockburn that day.

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She came on in the 52nd minute to play loosehead, but was soon heading off the pitch again with a serious knee injury.

“I think I was in denial about how bad the injury was when it first happened to be honest,” Cockburn, now 31, explained.

“I have never watched back the video of the incident, but my first thought was ‘What has just happened, how am I on the floor?’

“I’d tried to change direction and fallen over, so I immediately tried to get back up and carry on playing. My knee felt a bit sore, but I had so much adrenaline going through me that I thought I could carry on.

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“One of the physios came on and I was able to walk in a straight line and the initial pain in my knee had dulled down just an ache, so I packed down into the next scrum.

“My knee then gave way again and I realised that I’d have to go off. I never wanted to believe that it was a really bad injury like an ACL or anything and the medical team did a good job of keeping me calm.

“A couple of days later I was using crutches and was in a brace, but I was still in denial and thought I’d maybe be back in camp again soon.

“After I had a scan, I was then in the car with my partner driving when the Scotland physio at the time Karina Leahy phoned me and said ‘Lisa, I am really sorry, it is not good news’.

“I had completely ruptured my ACL and I just burst into tears with thoughts of the upcoming World Cup racing through my mind.

“I was told on that call that I’d be out for a minimum of nine months and up to a year, so the World Cup suddenly became out of reach and that really floored me.

“I was sobbing and sobbing, we stopped at a service station and I phoned my mum and that was really tough because going to a World Cup was something me and her had talked about a lot. I had fought so hard to put myself in the mix to go to that event and it had been taken away just like that.

“It was a heartbreaking time.”

After she got over the initial shock of the injury news, Cockburn knuckled down with the medical staff at her then club Worcester Warriors and those within Scottish Rugby.

The hard yards she put in meant that – after heading to New Zealand to watch her teammates play at the World Cup with her partner, her mum and brother – she was back in Scotland camp ahead of the 2023 Six Nations, just less than a year after the injury had occurred.

“I knew I still had a bit to go before I’d be playing matches again, but it was so good to be back around the girls again,” Cockburn said.

“Soon after I was back at Worcester doing some running and I tore my plantar fascia which is a pretty bad foot injury.

“I could have been thinking ‘Why me?’, but the year out had given me a different perspective and I felt a bit more resilient at that time.

“I really just got my head down and put in the hard work to get back and I can’t thank the medical staff at Worcester and Scotland enough for their support once again during the second injury.

“A few months went by and, although slightly frustrated not to be able to play for Worcester at the end of that season, I was back in time to join the Scotland squad that summer for pre-season 2023/24.

“I was so excited going back into camp, we have created a sisterhood like no other.

“Pre-season was hard – really hard – and I found it all a bit overwhelming. I was really rusty and I didn’t feel like the player I had been before the injuries.

“I was putting an awful lot of pressure on myself and I was putting an awful lot of pressure on being involved in the Spain game.”

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That Spain game mentioned was an Autumn Test in late September last year at the Hive and Cockburn was named in the matchday 23 to cover a new position of tighthead from the bench.

She came on for her 25th cap during that 36-5 triumph and she recalls: “In the lead up to it I had been welling up simply thinking about playing for Scotland again, but I had done some good work with a psychologist in camp who had helped me to really focus on the process, not the occasion and not what it meant in the context of the previous 18 months and the grand scheme of things.

“As we got off the bus before the game I saw my mum and partner, they felt like they’d been through my rehab too, so I was a bit teary, but then I got my ‘game face’ on.

“To pull the shirt on again was like a dream and since then I have just tried to take everything one day – and one game – at a time.

“I loved WXV 2 with Scotland in South Africa and, after the sad demise of Worcester, I have loved my time with Leicester Tigers in the PWR so far and it feels like with both squads we are building something really special.”

So, how did Cockburn come to rugby in the first place?

Well, having competed in Taekwon-do and horse riding while growing up on a dairy farm near Basingstoke, it was her friend’s promptings at school around the age of 14 that piqued her interest.

“I was always bigger and stronger than a lot of my peers and I remember sitting in a science lesson at school and one of my friends said to me ‘You should come and give rugby a go, I think you’d be really good’,” the qualified strength and conditioning coach who is currently a full-time contracted player with Scottish Rugby and now has 28 caps, explained.

“I headed down to Basingstoke RFC and loved it from the first session and got stuck in. We had a coach there who was really enthusiastic and encouraging and that helped me to realise it was the sport for me.

“In my later teens, I had to go looking for training and matches in the nearby area at clubs such as Ellingham and Ringwood, Havant and Solent Sirens, but I just wanted to play.

“When I went to Leeds Metropolitan University – now called Leeds Beckett – to study for an undergraduate degree in sports and exercise therapy that was where I was first introduced to strength and conditioning and that made a big difference to me and my rugby.

“A second-row/No. eight back then, I played for the uni team and joined DMP Sharks who were in the upper levels of the English club game at the time.”

Cockburn, who completed a master’s degree in strength and conditioning at Northumbria University post-Leeds, would go on and spend eight seasons with DMP – “the people there became like family to me”- before joining Worcester in late 2021 and then Leicester at the start of the current season.

In terms of her Scotland connections, both her parents and three of her grandparents are Scottish and she used to spend time in the school holidays north of the border.

“I was in Tesco doing my shopping when I got a call from the then Scotland head coach Shade Munro,” Cockburn reveals about her introduction to the full national squad back in 2018.

“He asked me if I’d like to come up to Scotland in the next few days and spend time in the Scottish camp.

“The girls were preparing for a Six Nations match with Italy at the time and I was happy to drop everything to get that opportunity. Playing for Scotland was a dream for me.

“I was really, really nervous. I felt a bit out of my depth because they were mid-tournament and had the set piece stuff and all the moves nailed down, but the girls were so welcoming.

“I then had a summer playing in Canada in Edmonton for the Leprechaun Tigers before earning my first Scotland cap away to Italy in November 2018.

“It has been a rollercoaster journey since then, but such a fun one and the injuries have just taught me to live for the moment and take everything in.

“We feel like we are in a good place as a Scotland squad as we look to build on six wins heading into the Six Nations.

“I’m embracing continuing to learn tighthead, embracing the environment and generally embracing life right now.”

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