Two of Oxford University’s internationals could scarcely be more different. Manon Johnes started every game of Wales’ Women’s Six Nations campaign, while Italian Bianca Coltellini has not played a single match in 15 months. Both are balancing the rigorous mental demands of an Oxford education with the physical challenge of elite rugby. A third, Laurel Chor, who won five caps for Hong Kong, highlights the depth of talent at the feted establishment
During the various lockdowns, Johnes and Coltellini have trained at Iffley Road under the watchful eye of Duncan Bennett, the strength and conditioning coach responsible for preparing them for international duty.
Johnes has just finished her first year studying geography, while also playing full-time for Bristol in the Premier 15s and training with fellow Welsh internationals in Swansea. Driving upwards of six hours a day to training sessions and camps while attempting to settle into life as a fresher at one of the world’s most prestigious universities is no easy feat. Making friends has been a challenge for the 20-year-old.
“I’ll go on a night out and I know I’ve still got to get up and train the next day,” Johnes tells The XV. “People don’t really get it; they think I’m a bit weird.”
I’ve been sat in the corner of the clubhouse at a Wales social trying to write an essay because my tutor set me it two days ago and it’s due in tomorrow.
Balancing academics and sport is a common struggle for students, but the back-row’s degree is far from sedate. There are often two 1500-word essays due each week on top lectures, tutorials and a hefty reading list.
“I’ve been sat in the corner of the clubhouse at a Wales social trying to write an essay because my tutor set me it two days ago and it’s due in tomorrow,” she says.
For the moment, Johnes is trying to have it all – but this comes at a cost, with Oxford dons not necessarily understanding the sporting commitment. Even her most supportive tutors find her rugby dreams “a bit abstract”.
“The culture at Wales is to give 100% – I’m trying to give my all but sometimes physically I’m not able to. I’m sitting down studying 24/7, falling out of my bed that’s smaller than a single, and then there’s a message on the group chat about line-outs that I need to review.”
For 22-year-old Coltellini, the pandemic has provided an unexpected opportunity to reclaim her spot in the Italy squad. The archaeology student won her solitary cap against France three years ago, aged just 18.
Her journey to international honours was gruelling, and she decided to take a two-season break from rugby having found the demands of the Italian set-up so mentally taxing. Coltellini had spent her teenage years at Gloucester-Hartpury, and at such a young age, she struggled to integrate socially into the national squad. It left her feeling isolated.
A quiet, reflective character, she was perhaps pushed in at the deep end too soon. It is clear that she is now ready to once again step up to the plate.
“I was mentally drained. I needed the time out to understand how I felt about rugby, to find the love for it again.
“I’m stronger, fitter and faster than I have ever been before. I’m ready to represent my country.”
Training with Johnes has helped Coltellini take things to the next level, providing a “real challenge” against which to measure herself, and a marker for what she must do to succeed in the elite game. There is even an outside chance that the pair could go head-to-head in the 2021 World Cup, should the Azzurra qualify.
No-one wants to see a team sticking it up the jumper in July. We’re prepared to take Cambridge on up front, but if we can go wide, we will.
Coltellini has put her coaching skills to good use in assisting with the Oxford development team, and the quietly confident flanker has impressed with her steady work ethic and knowledge. Following the completion of her masters degree, she will return to Italy to play for Milan’s top-flight side.
“She has become an absolute beast, with everything it takes to be Italy’s next star,” says Johnes.
The first test for Coltellini will be running out alongside her Welsh team-mate in Saturday’s Varsity match at Welford Road. Despite their obvious talents in the forwards, head coach Phil Llewelyn has given the pair licence to play in the backs, with Johnes taking the reins at scrum-half and Coltellini expected to make bulldozing runs in the 12 jersey. Llewellyn has had a tough time with selection and notes that the team has some “rockstar” players stepping into the back-row. Oxford have set a clear intention to entertain.
“We want to play some rugby,” Llewellyn says. “No-one wants to see a team sticking it up the jumper in July. We’re prepared to take Cambridge on up front, but if we can go wide, we will.”
The Dark Blues have had barely a term’s worth of training together – some members of their squad are completely new to rugby. Neither side has seen the other play, and it’s something of a coin toss as to who will prevail. The experience and pedigree of the internationals could be the difference. Whatever the outcome, this won’t be the last we hear of Johnes and Coltellini – they are here to make their mark.
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