None of the 32 players named in England’s Rugby World Cup 2021 squad this week would have worn a broader smile on hearing the news of their inclusion than Laura Keates.
Prop Keates will board the Red Roses’ flight to New Zealand on Friday, in contention to appear at a second Rugby World Cup, five years after a ruptured Achilles ended her hopes of playing at RWC 2017 just six weeks before the showpiece tournament.
It has been a long journey back for the Rugby World Cup winner, who subsequently suffered a serious knee injury within weeks of winning her 62nd England cap, against France in November 2020.
Keates has not represented her country since, and a place on the plane to New Zealand appeared improbable as recently as three weeks ago, when she was omitted from a 35-player training squad to prepare for the match against the USA in Exeter.
Red Roses coach Simon Middleton was ultimately convinced to include Keates in his final squad due to her experience and the confidence he has in her to perform when called upon. It is a faith she will be keen to repay next month.
“I’m absolutely buzzing to be back in the mix this time around and just over the moon to be included in the squad,” Keates told World Rugby.
“Obviously, it was a pretty tragic time. Six weeks out [from RWC 2017] and I wasn't really sure of the injury. I just thought six weeks out, strap it up, crack on, just get through the World Cup.
“But with the nature of the injury, it was pretty hard and since then obviously, I've had a couple of injuries.
“It definitely makes it all the more special getting into the squad and just being part of it again. It's been so incredible to be back in the squad.”
RWC 2017 support role
Although she couldn’t play any part in England’s Rugby World Cup title defence five years ago, Keates made the decision to travel to Ireland rather than watch on from home.
“We started in January as professional athletes and we'd obviously done that whole journey together as a really, really tight squad,” she explained.
“I knew no matter how I was feeling that I would want to be around the squad, and I'd be out there supporting the girls.
“So, I went to go and watch it, and it was definitely the right decision. For me, being around the squad, it really lifted me and then I was able to go and deal with my injury and rehab after that.”
Keates was at Kingspan Stadium in Belfast to witness England’s RWC 2017 final defeat to New Zealand, and although she insists it was a “weird feeling”, not as hard to take as for those involved on the pitch, it did give her a drive to make another tournament.
That was a dream that would have seemed further away than ever when she suffered an ACL injury only weeks after winning her first England caps in more than three and a half years at the end of 2020.
It precipitated a 10-month lay-off and would almost certainly have ended her hopes of appearing at RWC 2021 had it not been postponed.
Keates eventually returned to action for the University of Worcester Warriors on 9 October 2021, only seven days before the original date of the RWC 2021 final.
“Mentally, it was really, really strange. Obviously, it was incredible to get back in after my Achilles [injury], I wanted to do that. I wanted to prove to myself that I could actually get back in and compete at that level,” Keates said.
“I felt really good off the back of the two games we played against France. I felt really good, really fit, really ready to hopefully crack on.
“And then obviously as soon as I did my ACL, I remember speaking to the coaches and it was really tight.”
She added: “For me, the World Cup being postponed was a good thing because it meant I had that time.”
Rugby has not been Keates’ sole focus since 2017. In June, she graduated from the University of Birmingham having completed a five-year degree in dentistry.
Keates immediately put her plans to enrol in Dentistry Foundation Training, and a potential career in the NHS, on hold when Middleton offered her the chance to come back into England camp.
“The most special moment”
“Who knows what will happen after the World Cup,” she says about her future professional path and for now her only concern is helping England win RWC 2021.
Keates came off the bench to help the Red Roses beat Canada in the RWC 2014 final in Paris, and she says she sees a similar drive to succeed in her current team-mates.
“It’s an incredible squad,” she said of a group that includes five other Rugby World Cup winners. “I think the real similarity from 2014 to this squad is it's a real tight-knit group.
“There was a real sense of that cohesiveness in 2014 and coming back into the camp now you can feel it as well.
“Obviously, you've got people that you get on with better or you've got club [mates] that you know a bit more. But across the whole squad you can have a chat with anyone and that I think is a real key to us being together and playing for each other.
“And then obviously from 2014, you add the professionalism that's come in… We've got the time to be those professional athletes and it makes such a difference.”
What would it mean to lift the Rugby World Cup trophy for a second time on 12 November?
“It would be incredible, and I don't even think you could put into words what it would mean,” Keates said.
“It was the best experience I've ever had to win in 2014. Everything that happened in the lead up to it and everything that happened after it, it genuinely was the most special moment ever.
“So, to think about that again, I just don't think I could put it into words. But we are definitely taking it game by game, it's one of those where we can only put out our best performance and hopefully that will be enough to bring it home.”