Ben Cockayne out to pay his debt to Doncaster where his rugby league dream began by helping seal promotion
Just a few months ago, Ben Cockayne came out of retirement to play for Lambwath Lions in the Hull & District League as a favour to a mate. Now, he is hoping to fire Doncaster into the Championship.
It was a surprise to many when, at the age of 38, the former Hull KR and Wakefield Trinity winger returned to the professional game with the South Yorkshire club in August.
He had retired more than two years previously after suffering a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament while playing for York City Knights but answered an unexpected SOS from Doncaster centre Sam Smeaton, his former Featherstone Rovers team-mate.
Since then, Cockayne has helped the Dons on their promotion push, featuring in the unfamiliar role of hooker, and will look to complete the job when they head to Workington Town in Sunday’s League 1 play-off final.
He explained: “I’m enjoying it a bit more than I probably should be if I’m honest!
“I got a phone call from Smeats about 10 weeks ago.
“I’ve spoken to him occasionally on and off but not regularly since finishing at Featherstone all those years ago (in 2011) when he was my centre.
“I wondered what he was ringing for.
“But he said did I fancy coming and helping them out until the end of the year as they were doing it a bit tough. They’d had some injuries and I think they’d had some Covid isolations.
“I had an outstanding fine with the RFL so there was that to get sorted first but once that was boxed off I said ‘let’s do it’ and here we are, in the final.
“The terms and conditions of me playing hooker were as long as you’re defending me out wide so I’m not getting run at all day long!
“It’s been beneficial for the team as it’s kept me on the field all the game and I’ve been contributing pretty well.”
Richard Horne’s side secured their place in the final with a dramatic success at Keighley Cougars on Sunday, coming from 26-12 behind to win 28-26 with Jake Sweeting’s nerveless touchline conversion of Liam Johnson’s try after the hooter.
Cockayne, who played for England against the Exiles in 2013, admitted: “It was good and, as daft as it sounds, even down to those last couple of minutes, I always thought we still had the capability of winning.
“It was a weird feeling. They’d been in front all the game and, if you’d have watched it all, you’d have thought there’s no way Donny are going to win this.
“But I just had a feeling. We all did. To get it in the last minute was great. The only game I’ve been involved in like that was when we (Hull KR) got relegated against Salford (in the 2016 Million Pound Game) but I couldn’t really do much about that because I did my knee.
“I went off after half-time and it went to Golden Point, Salford came back and won it. I’ve only been on the wrong side of one of those before, so to be on the right side was pretty good.”
Looking ahead to Sunday’s game, he added: “I would say Workington are favourites. They finished second, have home advantage and got a good win over Keighley so we’re going up as underdogs but we certainly have belief. We also are fully aware if we start as badly as we did on Sunday it might not be the same outcome. We need to be on it from the first minute.”
Cockayne, who started out his career with Doncaster in 2005, said his only fear about returning was not over his knee but whether he’d “embarrass” himself after being so long out of the sport.
However, with his experience, leadership and guile, he has certainly proved his worth and he has offered to continue playing in 2022 if they want him.
And there is another reason he wants to help – the late St John Ellis who, as his Doncaster coach, helped put him on the road in the professional game but tragically died aged just 41 in 2005.
“Doncaster was my first club where I had a full season and had a chance,” recalled the Wakefield-born player.
“But when I left at the end of 2005 I never really got an opportunity to thank St John Ellis for what he did for me. I went on to have a good career and play so many years but if it was not for St John Ellis and Doncaster giving me that chance initially I’d have never had that career.
“I never got to say thanks to Singe as he passed away that New Year’s Eve 2005. The only person I know at the club who was there back then is Ray Green. So, if anything, for me, getting a win this weekend I’d feel like I’d paid a bit of a debt off.”
Talking of debts, that is how his unexpected appearance for Lambwath came about.
Cockayne explained: “I’ve had a good relationship for a number of years with a local tiler. When I did my sponsorship work at KR, he did some of that and he did some at York. He came to do some tiling at my house and when I went to pay him he said don’t worry, just come do some coaching at our team.
“He’s secretary at Lambwath Lions. We had an agreement I’d go down and do six or seven sessions but I never got down for the last one. I said if I could make their next game, I’d play 20 minutes for him. I ended up playing pretty much the full game.”
And so the comeback began.