11 August 2023

Day out at Wembley feels like ‘weird dream’ for cup finalist Jodie Cunningham

11 August 2023

Jodie Cunningham has marvelled at the significant strides women’s rugby league has taken as St Helens and Leeds continue their rivalry with a historic visit to Wembley.

The famous stadium stages the Women’s Challenge Cup final for the first time on Saturday, where Saints will be bidding for a third successive title and a second win in a row over Leeds in the showpiece.

Both Saints captain Cunningham and her Leeds counterpart Hanna Butcher started their careers in fields that had to be cleared of litter beforehand and where they were cheered on by only their nearest and dearest.

Professional status is yet to materialise – Cunningham juggles her playing duties with being the national women and girls’ development manager for the Rugby Football League while Butcher is a surveyor for Kirklees Council – but this weekend represents another important step for the women’s game.

Cunningham told the PA news agency: “Playing at Wembley Stadium just feels like this weird dream I never thought I’d actually get to experience. I don’t think it was even a pipe dream when I first started.

“To play a final in somewhere that had a stand was something that would have been a dream back then. To have a game where it wasn’t just your family members in the crowd cheering you on, that was a dream.

“Most people didn’t even know that women played. If it came up in conversation and you said you played rugby league, you’d get asked, ‘is it touch?’ They had no concept of what that could even look like.

“Now, to think there are genuinely fans of the game or people who are just aware of it is just a mega step for us. It’s only building our fanbase and I think Wembley will give us an even bigger platform.”

Cunningham, who was part of the Thatto Heath Crusaders side that won four consecutive Challenge Cups from 2013 to 2016, admitted getting more attention brings much greater pressure.

Saints beat Leeds in the 2021 semi-final and then prevailed in a seesaw final last year although the Rhinos gained a measure of revenge 11 months ago en route to Super League Grand Final glory.

Cunningham added: “The stuff that the men have managed to do, the history of this club for winning many, many trophies, there’s a level of expectation that you’re going to bring in trophies.

“That’s what the club wants, thrives off and expects. We expect that of ourselves as well and retaining the Challenge Cup was a big, big target we put on ourselves.

“The first trophy available, the opportunity to retain it, there’s always pressure once you’ve won a trophy to keep hold of it, we’re definitely putting that pressure on ourselves.

“We’re going to be holding on to that trophy really tightly to make sure we don’t give Leeds the opportunity to take it back.”

Butcher – part of the Leeds sides who won the Challenge Cup in 2018 and 2019, beating Castleford in the final on both occasions – is confident Leeds can end Saints’ stranglehold on the competition.

She told PA: “It’s going to be really, really special walking a team out at Wembley, I wouldn’t want to do it with any other group of people. We’re a really close-knit team.

“We’ve just had a weekend away, it’s united us even more. We spoke about why do we dedicate so much time and why do we juggle our work and family life. The answer is we just want to be with each other and we know we can do something special.”

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