09 August 2023

St Helens forward Pip Birchall relishing chance to take centre stage at Wembley

09 August 2023

Pip Birchall is no stranger to Wembley having cheered on her beloved St Helens at the showpiece venue in each of their last four Challenge Cup final appearances.

But during those big occasions Birchall and her Saints-supporting family never dared dreamed that one day she might be the one chasing silverware on the game’s biggest stage.

The 23-year-old forward, who was born and raised in the town, will finally assume the limelight with her team-mates on Saturday when Saints face Leeds Rhinos in the women’s Challenge Cup final.

“Every time I sat in those stands I was itching to get onto that pitch but I assumed it would never happen because the women didn’t get to play there,” Birchall told the PA news agency.

“I just had the mindset that it would never happen. But I gradually started to wonder if it might be possible, which just shows how far the women’s game has come.

“My parents were at a wedding in Ireland when we won the semi-final, and when I phoned them we were all in tears. They have been with me to so many places in my career and we couldn’t believe we are going to Wembley.”

Birchall started playing for Saints at junior levels but the women’s game was still in its infancy and her and her team-mates had to routinely overcome obstacles just to get onto the playing surface.

“I remember one game at Chorley where they’d left the gates locked and we had to knock on a door and ask a man in his pyjamas if it was all right to climb over his back fence to get to the pitch,” added Birchall.

“We would often have to play four versus four or join the other team just to make up the numbers. If you hurt your leg you just jumped in the car and tried to make it to A&E as quickly as possible.

I remember one game at Chorley where they'd left the gates locked and we had to knock on a door and ask a man in his pyjamas if it was all right to climb over his back fence to get to the pitch

“It’s been a rollercoaster but being able to be a part of the first-ever women’s final at Wembley is another sign of how far the game has come.”

Saints booked their place in the final when Faye Gaskin kicked the winning drop-goal in their semi-final against York – but hours later the men’s team failed to keep their side of the bargain as they slid to defeat against Leigh.

Birchall could hardly hide her disappointment at that shock result but the hurt is diluted by the knowledge that for once the town will be placing its women’s team at the front and centre.

“It would have been the pinnacle to have both teams there,” admitted Birchall. “But with the men not managing, it’s now about us. We’re who the town is talking about, there’s a buzz about the place and that’s exactly what we need.”

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