After St Helens Women made Challenge Cup history at Wembley, we take a closer look at some of the sights, sounds, and stories from a landmark day of rugby league action…
A sign of things to come: Welcome to Wembley women’s rugby league
Women’s sport in general, and especially in the UK is having its moment and continues on a rapid rise in popularity.
England won the Euros and are challenging in the World Cup, the Red Roses won the Six Nations at Twickenham, the Vitality Roses made the Netball World Cup for the first time and now rugby league is joining the party.
The popularity of the sport rose during the Rugby League World Cup last year and now the domestic game is catching on too with more televised Super League matches, competition for players, and a final at the iconic Wembley Stadium to boot.
The women’s game has long played second to the men’s but on August 12, the women finally got their moment in the spotlight, 8,338 fans watching on, beating the previous record of 5,888 at Elland Road last year.
St Helens and the Leeds Rhinos had sealed their spot in a historic battle and it was the Saints who came out on top, hundreds of supporters who had travelled down to London cheering them on.
It was the latest instalment of ‘If you can see it, you can be it’ as more female sports stars were thrust into the spotlight for young aspiring rugby league players to look up to.
Bearing the fruits of your labour: Jodie Cunningham and Emily Rudge
Every sport has it’s stars that have lasted for many a year, but none in rugby league have stories quite like St Helens and England captain Jodie Cunningham and her best friend and former St Helens and England captain Emily Rudge.
Rudge handed both captaincies to Cunningham earlier this year but both remain strong leaders in the Saints camp, having been involved in the sport from its infancy.
Indeed, their commitment was epitomised as Cunningham shared the Challenge Cup trophy lift with Rudge, a symbol of the rugby league journey the two have been on together as they continue to inspire the next generation.
“Me and (Emily) Rudge where having a chat and we realised, Lucie Sams, this is her third or fourth game for us,” said Cunningham.
“One of them was a semi final at Warrington, this one at Wembley, her experience of women’s rugby league is absolutely incredible.
“We are on the top stage and for these young girls, that is the norm for them.
“For us, we pinch ourselves every minute of what we are experiencing right now and how amazing that they are starting in this and are only going to push and make it even better.
“People like Faye Gaskin and Shona Hoyle, who have been around the game and done incredible things, they get to experience this and then the young girls in the squad are just going to get better and better from experiencing days like today and taking it to the next stage once we hang our boots up.”
Written off and bouncing back: From pre-season slumps to the top of the Wembley steps
One of the biggest questions right now for women’s rugby league is how they move the domestic competition from amateur to professional as the standard continues to improve.
While Leeds Rhinos and York Valkyrie decided this year to offer some form of payment to players, other teams such as St Helens have opted against for the moment.
While all clubs are in agreement that the women’s game is heading towards payment in a more formalised sense, there is debate over how this should look for the competition as a whole to ensure a competitive but even playing field.
For St Helens women’s head coach Matty Smith, the first step is making sure clubs are looking after their players so they can put in their best performances, like his side did at Wembley, so more eyes are on the competition and then a professional game will naturally be produced.
Indeed, with his side losing players to those offering payment in pre-season, such as England’s Amy Hardcastle heading to Leeds, Saints worked hard to stay motivated and show they should not be written off.
“The girls were put up here in terms of the World Cup and playing for England. We have got nine in the England squad,” said Smith.
“They finish that and the next day they are back to work and it is hard when you come off a pedestal like that, playing for your country, to start back work it is difficult for the girls.
“It is about trying to life them back up and pre-season was difficult.
“When you talk about what is next, Wembley was definitely one for us to get them back up. The prospect of playing at Wembley and playing on the biggest stage is something everyone wanted to do.
“We lost Amy (Hardcastle) to Leeds and that was a number of things, not just about the pay, she is at the back end of her career and it is closer to home.
“She made that decision for her family and we respected that decision.
“Teams were coming in offering girls money and I didn’t think it was the right way to go. I thin, us as a club, you have got to look after the girls at this stage in different ways and we do that with medical care and we try and look after them in terms of food after training and stuff like that and expenses.
“It is a difficult one because I want these girls to be paid but it has got to be done the right way and it will happen, it is small steps, but it will happen.
“The women’s game is only going to get better and I am proud to be a part of it.”