Vickii Cornborough Exclusive: 'I've still not got over 2017 and not winning the World Cup'

Vickii Cornborough is entering her second World Cup with England
©RFU Collection via Getty Images

Vickii Cornborough has not forgotten what it felt like. The Harlequins prop is gearing up for her second World Cup, but she is one of a cluster of England players who have some unfinished business.

Five years ago, it was pain and heartache for Cornborough. In Belfast, New Zealand ended the Red Roses' reign as world champions and memories of the full-time whistle and the immediate aftermath are still etched into her mind.

"I don't think you should ever hide away from the disappointment," Cornborough tells TRU. "The highs and lows are what makes you the bons person you are, the player you are, the squad you are.

"I've still not got over 2017 and not winning. That final, I was absolutely convinced until that final whistle that we were going to win that game and we didn't. I remember when that final whistle went, I had my arm around Sarah Bern's shoulders. We looked at each other and said, 'next World Cup, we are going to do this.'"

But as Cornborough hints at, the devastation of falling at the final hurdle has only whetted the appetite for this England squad to deliver success and glory at this year's World Cup which kicks off on Saturday.

"You have to be conscious of those lows but every training session, every gym session, every game that I have played in the last five years has been in the build-up to righting those wrongs from 2017 and I am hell-bent on going to this World Cup and winning this World Cup," Cornborough says. "That's my sole focus and I have got the utmost belief in my squad mates and the rest of our staff as well to do it."

This attitude from Cornborough is not arrogance or lip service. It comes from the culture and environment England have created over the last five years, but especially since 2019 when professional contracts were introduced by the Rugby Football Union.

The 32-year-old was one of the first 28 players to be awarded a full-time deal and this landmark decision was the catalyst which has enabled the Red Roses to hit some phenomenal heights, including four successive Six Nations titles and stitching together a record-breaking run of 25 consecutive Test victories.

The strides England have made have been groundbreaking and their dominance of the northern hemisphere shows the No.1 ranked side in the world have the pedigree, but also the mindset, to go all the way in New Zealand.

"Yes, we have had a great winning streak and we have smashed records, but for all of us, we are always chasing that perfect game and if we can go out to the World Cup and do that, what a stage to be able to perform on," Cornborough continues. "Yes, there will anxiousness there because of how close we came in 2017 but you have got to lean into those pressurised moments and if we can come out the back of a World Cup with that trophy, that is going to stay with me for the rest of my life. Rugby is my life and I am so excited about what we are going to bring as a squad in New Zealand."

The fact Cornborough is not alone when referring to 2017 is one of the many vital attributes of Simon Middleton's team. The head coach, himself, was in charge five years ago but his experience, the leadership qualities of Sarah Hunter, Emily Scarratt and Amy Cokayne et al - combined with bundles of youthful exuberance - has helped the Red Roses continually raise their standards.

The blend of World Cup finalists with emerging talent who have been expertly embedded into the England set-up makes for an all-encompassing squad who are now aiming to become all-conquering.

"We have spent so much time together over the past five years building," adds Cornborough. "You look at the squad over the last couple of years and we have been refining and refining and refining. There is so much talent coming through which is why it went completely up to the wire for World Cup selection.

"I absolutely want players to come through the system and challenge for spots in the squad and challenge me for that shirt because ultimately, that makes us the best team we can be.

"Especially as one of the older hats in the group now, I think having that youthful exuberance and that injection of fun and going on social media and TikTok and all of these ridiculous things that I don't really kind of do particularly much is great!! Just to spend so much time together pre-World Cup as well, we know each other absolutely inside out and we are ready to go."

When England get their World Cup campaign underway against Fiji on Saturday at Eden Park, it will be just over 14 weeks since the squad first came together in Bath to begin their preparations.

Despite the Red Roses entering the last World Cup as world champions, their exploits over the last five years have catapulted them into the spotlight and arguably, expectations have never been higher for an England side heading into a major tournament.

A strong summer of sport headlined by the Lionesses becoming the queens of Europe has led to national star status. The RFU will be hoping for a similar outcome for the Red Roses after throwing their weight behind the programme three years ago.

Tie together possible success in New Zealand with England hosting the World Cup in 2025, then the only way is surely up for Middleton's side.

"If you had asked me when I was 15/16 years old, if you were to tell me back then that rugby would be my full-time job and I would've made a career out of it, I would not have believed you," Cornborough says.

"Women's rugby back then, you just didn't have the opportunities that you do now. Young kids who are like four, five, six years old, they can see us now. They, we have that visibility. I didn't really have many female role models in the game growing up but that has completely changed now.

"To be able to be a part of that journey of professionalism in the women's game and to see the development to this point has been amazing. Just the scale of it is just unbelievable and I am so excited to see that progression continue because it has made my life what it is. Professionalism, for me, has been an absolute game changer in terms of me developing as a player and I don't think I would have been able to be the player I am today without the support of the England programme and what the RFU has done.

"To see where we can be in the 2025 World Cup, a home World Cup, with the whole of England behind us, is going to be amazing and I know the plan is for the RFU to sell out Twickenham for a women's game. Just imagine having 82,000 fans around that stadium cheering on the Red Roses. It gives me hope we are not going to plateau here. It is special to be part of this."

But the 70-cap forward is quick to stress it is all about the here and now. The culmination of hard work over the last five years boils down to the next five weeks.

The opportunity is there for the Red Roses to call themselves the undisputed best team in the world. The opportunity is there for Cornborough to forget what 2017 felt like once and for all.