The rugby world appeared to be at the feet of Coreen Grant after she raced 40 metres to score the try at Twickenham that won the Varsity Match for Cambridge in December, 2019.
Her solo slalom through the Dark Blue defensive line carried her over the line and took Cambridge to an 8-5 victory. It stands as one of the greatest tries scored by a Cambridge player, male or female, at Twickenham.
Already a Scotland U20 cap, she made the senior squad for the 2020 Six Nations campaign and found herself on the bench for the game against England. Everything appeared to be falling perfectly into place for her.
Then came lockdown. Just like so many other aspiring international athletes she found herself playing a waiting game, trying to keep her fitness and skills levels high, but not knowing when her next opportunity to play would come along.
Fast forward to 17 April this year and her sporting dream finally became a reality when she came onto the field on the hour mark against Italy to win her first full cap. The Scots may have lost the game in Glasgow 41-20, but Grant was still all smiles.
“It was an amazing experience for me to win my first cap. It has been a huge goal for me for a long time. I was capped at U20 level against Belgium when I was 18. Ever since then it had been my dream to get capped at senior level,” said the former Corpus Christi student.
“It all felt a little bit surreal. When I got the call from the sideline and I was ready to go on and just remember saying to myself, ‘this is it’.”
Having left Cambridge with her Masters degree in English Literature she is now making her way in the world of work and furthering her rugby career at Saracens. She has also been on sevens duty with the Scottish side in the Rugby Europe series this month, playing in the first of two rounds in Lisbon to add another cap to her collection.
All of a sudden her sporting life is almost back up to full-throttle, although she is the first to admit the past year has been anything but plain sailing.
“Looking back, I was wondering what have elite athletes had learned from the experience of training in isolation. The first thing to note is that training is a privilege,” she wrote in the Varsity newspaper.
“The first thing to strike me was how lucky I had been during lockdown. Training in isolation was not easy, but having the time, space, and equipment to do so was a privilege.
“Having friends and teammates who are key workers and elite sportspeople, I saw people who saved countless lives, and kept Britain going during the pandemic, continue their training after clocking off from work. These are people for whom my admiration is enormous.
“As well as time, I had the space to train during lockdown. I live on the outskirts of a city, in suburbs surrounded by green spaces for running, cycling or kicking a ball. Generally, I had the luxury of exercising outdoors in a location both nearby and spacious enough not to worry too much about social distancing or the travel limit.
“While I bemoaned the limited availability of equipment, I still had balls, bands, a training mat and a few weights. Most importantly, I had a laptop through which I could join live fitness Zoom sessions with teammates, or stream Youtube yoga and Pilates classes, and access tailored programmes and physio screening from my club.
“Lockdown made me particularly aware of these advantages, which I had always had, but hadn’t necessarily appreciated in a sporting context.
“I’ve known for a long time that sport, and exercise more generally, is critical to my mental health and wellbeing. Lockdown only made this more important. Before coronavirus, I lived in a university environment with daily contact from lecturers, classmates, college friends and teammates.
“I was training or playing an average of five to six days a week, across two cities and travelling to national camps on a monthly basis. When lockdown was implemented, I was constrained to one house with three other people.
“I was extremely grateful to be able to return to my family home, where I was supported while finishing my degree, but my experience of high levels of stimulation being cut very quickly – and the subsequent demoralising effect – was the same for many athletes.
“I found working from home challenging. Motivating myself to train, without a future game or even return date in sight, even more so.
“Exercise became a critical release for me. I took to using exercise to keep a semblance of daily and weekly schedules, maintaining training times and going on longer bi-weekly cycles for a change of scenery.
“Getting out of the house and exercising outdoors kept me from being overwhelmed, both by the relentless reality of pandemic news, and by my own sense of purposelessness. There are reams of scientific explanations behind the mental benefits of sports, but the pandemic has driven home exactly how beneficial exercise can be for the mind.
“Though the pandemic has been a difficult time for many, training in lockdown left me, and hopefully other athletes, with a renewed appreciation for what we have”.
Now the Light Blue hero of 2019 has a Scottish cap to add to what she has, although she doesn’t want to stop with just one. It took a dozen years to get to full international status and she believes the best is still to come.
“It was a fantastic experience being involved in the Six Nations. I’d been involved with the senior women’s squad in Scotland for a few years but 2021 was a real learning curve for me,” she added.
“I was on the bench for the game against England in 2020, but didn’t get on. It really was a case of just taking in as much as I could from every experience.
“I started playing rugby at High School when I was 10. I was lucky that my school had a small section for women’s rugby set up by Stevie Leckie, our director of rugby.
“I just loved it from the first time I hit my first tackle pad. It was great fun and I trained with the boys. I was lucky because we had an ex-Scotland international, Graham Shiel, as the coach and I was in the same year group as his son, Charlie Shiel, who now plays for Edinburgh. It was great being able to training with the boys.
“I went away to the USA for a while and played a number of different sports when I was there, but not rugby. When we returned I was 16 and took up rugby again at Murrayfield Wanderers in Edinburgh and really fell in love with the game.
“I first played in the Premiership in England with DMP Sharks, when I was studying at Durham University. Now I’m playing with Saracens.
“When I was looking to study for a Masters degree I went to Cambridge and told them I wanted to play rugby alongside my degree. The Cambridge coach, Jack Baird, had been at Saracens previously and he put me in touch with the club.”
And looking back on her Varsity Match victory – she also won the Pegers-Bunting award as the player of the match – it healed an old wound from her first visit to Twickenham.
“I’d lost there with Durham University in the BUCS final earlier in the year, so I didn’t want to go to Twickenham again and leave a loser by another narrow margin,” said Grant, who struck in the 77th minute of the match.
“We had been behind the whole game and we knew we had more to give. We didn’t want to end on that note. We had a team huddle with about five minutes to go and we said we wanted to go up field and play in their territory and play on our terms. The winning move came off the back of that.
“I thought ‘this is our last chance’ and I just went for it. Oxford had been really good in playing the conditions and they did a great job in keeping us on the back foot, they stopped us playing in the way we wanted to. On that occasion there wasn’t too much time to think about what I was doing. The white line was there and I just had to do my best to get over the line.
“That try will stand out for a long time and it will be a pretty special memory. Credit to the Oxford girls they really pushed us hard, but our team spirit got us through and what an occasion it was to be involved in.
“I just love playing rugby and the buzz you get from being involved in something like that. It was really special – and the celebrations were pretty good as well!”
What’s next on her agenda? Well, there could be sevens rugby at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham next year, another Six Nations campaign and a World Cup campaign to kick-off.