Jack Cobden: Former England junior winger targets World Cup 2019 place for Romania

Jack Cobden on his Romania debut
Jack Cobden scored two tries with his first two touches for Romania on his debut

On a field in Brussels, and eight years after last representing England, Jack Cobden prepared to make his senior international debut to the sound of a foreign national anthem.

In 2009, the winger wore the Red Rose on his chest in the Under-20 World Cup final alongside Ben Youngs, Courtney Lawes and Jamie George.

But on the same day that trio helped England retain their Six Nations title with victory over Scotland, Cobden switched allegiances as he made his debut for adopted country Romania in the Rugby Europe Championship.

"I feel privileged to have played with all those boys when I was younger. They are nice memories for me now," 28-year-old Cobden told BBC Sport.

"I appreciate every opportunity I got to play for England as a junior, they were all great experiences and helped me get my opportunity to play in Romania. I'm grateful for that.

"Right now, I'm focused on playing for Romania and doing as well as I can for my new country."

So how did a player raised in Lichfield, Staffordshire, nurtured at the Leicester Tigers academy and who starred in the Championship for Nottingham end up playing for the country which is perhaps best known to non-Romanians as the home of Count Dracula.

Bucharest via South America

Jack Cobden in action for Nottingham in 2009
Jack Cobden was called up to play for England at the 2009 Under-20 World Cup while on loan in the Championship with Nottingham from Leicester Tigers

After an injury-plagued season, Cobden was released by Nottingham in 2013 and left to contemplate his options.

And so, he went on a soul-searching trip to South America, and later ended up pouring pints.

"I did think that was me done," Cobden said.

"I went travelling around South America, and thought I'd come back to England and maybe play for another team.

"I was basically working in a bar when the opportunity to play in Romania came up."

While contemplating his options in the game, he had sent his CV and a highlights package of his career to Bucharest, and it was there he was given the chance to resurrect his career.

He was offered a 10-month contract, but has so far remained with SuperLiga side CSM Bucharest for three years - long enough to qualify to play for Romania on residency grounds.

And with a World Cup in Japan in 2019, he has a major target to work towards.

"I have loved every minute," said Cobden, who is now also an expectant father with his girlfriend four months pregnant.

"It is one of those places that when you first arrive it does seem very different because you see the communist bloc flats still here. But it has its beautiful parts, Romania is lovely, raw and bit untouched.

"There have been ups and downs, but it suits me here. It has been the best decision I ever made and, if anything, wish I had done it earlier.

"I never came out here thinking of international rugby - it has been a pretty incredible journey for me."

Family of internationals

Joe and Jack Cobden
Joe Cobden (left) played with older brother Jack in the Leicester Tigers academy and later at Nottingham

As the oldest of three Cobden siblings, Jack has set somewhat of a trend in the family.

He was the first to win international sporting honours, with his brother Joe following suit on the rugby pitch at England Under-16 and U18 levels, and sister Beth playing for the senior England netball team.

Joe, now 25 and playing professionally with Nottingham, made the trip to Brussels to watch his older brother make his Romania debut - a moment which evoked the same sense of pride he had whenever he pulled on an England shirt in the past.

"It is nice to know that if you put in the hard work, you never know where it will take you. For me, that is a real motivation," Joe said.

"He stopped playing for a while and I didn't know if he would come back. then he was off to Romania, which seemed strange.

"But that sums him up as you never really know what he is going to do, and he has not looked back since."

Beth, a versatile player with Loughborough Lightning in the Superleague, says Jack has been a sporting role model for her from an early age.

"He is a great inspiration," said Beth. "He did really well and we all followed really.

Beth Cobden (l) in action for England against Australia
Beth Cobden (left in action for England against Australia), also plays international sport

"To go to Romania where the language and culture is different in a big step, and he went anyway. He just takes things in his stride.

"He does think he is the coolest Cobden in the family."

As a family of professional sports people, they also provide a strong support network for one another.

"It is good to be able to talk to one another because we area all in the same boat and know what we are each going through," Beth said.

"The boys understand what I go through and it is great to have that. "

Ian and Pat Cobden at son Jack's debut for Romania
Jack's parents, Ian and Pat Cobden were in Brussels to watch Jack make his Romania debut away to Belgium

A return trip to Japan?

A decade after featuring for England in the Under-20 World Cup in Japan, Cobden now has the chance of a return to the Land of the Rising Sun for the 2019 World Cup.

Romania have played in every tournament since 1987, and after beating Georgia in the final match of the Rugby Europe Championship - denying their opponents a seventh successive title - they remain on course to qualify again.

Cobden made a strong case in what has been his only appearance so far for The Oaks, scoring tries with his first two touches in a 33-17 triumph over Belgium.

"Japan is a long way away, a lot can happen between now and then," he said.

The past eight years is testament to that statement, as he admits he "lost his way a little bit" after being released by Leicester Tigers without making a Premiership appearance.

"I'd been in a professional set up from the age of 16, there is a lot of pressure at that age," he explained. "You want to make something of yourself and when the plan doesn't come together I needed time to readjust.

"I trained so hard for years in the academy and hoped to play in the Premiership. When it ended abruptly for me it really did take a few years to come back around and realise that I have such a good life playing rugby, a game I love.

"I'm glad I have come around full circle now."

'Proud of rugby culture'

Jack Cobden
Jack Cobden played alongside a number of current senior England players for England Under-20s

At a time when Georgia's place at the Six Nations has been debated, and promotion and relegation from the tournament has been discussed, Cobden says the game in Romania is steadily improving.

In a different era, the Oaks could have rightly considered themselves a force in the game, having won away from home against Wales and France, and beaten Scotland's Grand Slam-winning side of 1984.

"They are still really proud of their rugby culture here in Romania," Cobden said.

"The team is really strong these days, a number of big, strong forwards play abroad in France.

"There are also a lot of big old boys in the league here as well. It might not be the fastest, but it is definitely physical and you know you have played a game of rugby afterwards.

"Every year the standard is getting better and with more foreign coaches coming over helping the youth, they are giving the game a boost.

"It was nice to get my opportunity with the national team, and with my family there to watch, it was the highlight of my career so far."

But when it comes to Jack Cobden, you can only wonder what is yet to come?

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