Two years ago Heather Cowell decided she’d had enough of rugby, writes Ella Jerman.
The former junior world champion tumbler left her local side Harlequins in 2017 to go travelling, unsure whether a return to sport was on the cards.
But it seems all roads lead back to her native Twickenham – and rugby – as the winger gears up to make her debut at the stadium when Harlequins women host Leinster for the first time this weekend.
The match is part of Big Game 12, Harlequins men’s annual Premiership game at Twickenham and while the double header may be a first in women’s club rugby, it’s certainly no unfamiliar stage for Isleworth-born Cowell.
“My primary school was literally next door to the stadium, and we used to have our sports day on the pitch every year,” she said. “I can’t believe I’m now going to be playing for Quins there.”
Having attended Chase Bridge Primary School in Twickenham, rugby has been an ever-present backdrop for Cowell – even more so after her twin brother, Cameron, went professional with Doncaster Knights.
Perhaps it is a sign of the growing strength of the women’s game that Cowell has beaten her brother to a Twickenham debut, however the 23-year-old knows there’s still a long way to go.
“I think Harlequins are leading the way in terms of equality,” she explained. “We were there as a team to watch last year, so the fact that we will be playing there too this year is huge.
“It’s still about baby steps when it comes to closing the gap on the men’s game and it’s hard to put a time frame on how far we are off.
“It’s so important to have women’s games on the back of men’s. To be able to put the women’s game on such a big platform will enable it to grow.
“Whatever happens the gap is closing quite dramatically year on year and we’re going in the right direction – I’ve even beaten my own brother when it comes to playing at Twickenham!”
Beating Leinster would cap off a successful first-half of the season for Quins, the West-London based outfit having won all but one of their Tyrrells Premier 15s fixtures.
Their sole defeat to date came against Saracens, Marlie Packer scoring a second-half hat-trick to secure a 33-27 comeback victory at the Stoop which, contrary to expectation, is a result Cowell would prefer to take for the long-term health of the game.
“I’d much rather play games like we had against Saracens week in week out,” added Cowell.
“For us, losing is such a big deal because the league just isn’t anywhere near where the men’s is in terms of competitiveness.
“Although the big wins give us the opportunity to try out some new skills or tactics, it’s not necessarily an enjoyable game to play in or watch because you want the league to be tight.
“There is still quite a gap between the teams, and it would be more exciting if we could tighten it up – that would encourage more spectators to come down.
“Against Saracens there were 1,200 people at the Stoop and the noise was incredible. To have that week on week would be awesome.”
Big Game 12 takes place on 28 December at Twickenham Stadium, featuring Harlequins v Leicester Tigers followed by Harlequins Women v Leinster Women. Tickets are still available at tickets.quins.co.uk