Leeds Rhinos star Caitlin Beevers has lauded ‘inspirational’ St Helens captain Jodie Cunningham, who will line up against her on Saturday in a historic first-ever Women’s Challenge Cup final at Wembley.
Cunningham, 31, is one of the most recognisable figures in the women’s game. Making her international debut for England in 2009, she won four straight Challenge Cups with Thatto Heath Crusaders between 2013 and 2016.
Remaining with the side as they made the transition to being recognised as St Helens to enter the Women’s Super League in 2018, she would go on to be named the Woman of Steel, and earlier this year assumed captaincy of the England side from Emily Rudge.
The Lionesses play a big part in the friendship between Beevers and Cunningham, who are separated by 10 years but have played together in the white jersey since the now-21-year-old’s debut in October 2018 against France.
Beevers praises ‘role model’ Jodie Cunningham
Speaking to Love Rugby League, the Rhinos utility back said: “Growing up, with how the women’s game was quite underdeveloped and there wasn’t really any media around it, I didn’t have anything or anyone in particular to look up to really.
“If you’d have asked me to name five women’s England players growing up, I definitely wouldn’t have been able to, but coming into the England programme at such a young age, Jodie was a massive inspiration.
“She was the person to make sure that everybody was comfortable and that everyone understood what they were doing. For me originally starting at full-back, she was the full-back in the team then and it was nice to get a bit of feedback from her.
“She’s a massively influential person to the Super League and to the international game for me, and someone I would probably pick out as a role model if I had to name one.”
“I’m glad she has this opportunity to play at Wembley”
At midday on Saturday, history will be made when the Women’s Challenge Cup final gets underway. Never before has the showpiece event been held at Wembley, or even at the same venue as the men’s equivalent.
The closest it came prior was when – coincidentally – Leeds and Saints met at Elland Road in 2022. That final came on the same day as a men’s semi-final clash between Wigan Warriors and the Red Vee.
Despite having already done so in a Schools’ Cup final, Beevers herself is filled with excitement to step out onto the hallowed turf at the ‘home of football’ oncemore, and this time, she’s happy her international skipper will be able to do it too, albeit in opposing camps.
On hearing that Cunningham a decade ago played in a Challenge Cup final at the home of Batley Bulldogs, Beevers added: “I was fortunate that we won the first Challenge Cup, and that was played at Warrington. That was huge for us at the time, the fact that we were playing in a Super League men’s stadium.
“I definitely didn’t think back then that even just a few years later it would be at this point, and that’s phenomenal to hear from Jodie.
“It shows the experience she has in the game, and I’m glad she now has this opportunity to be able to do all this and go and play at Wembley because she’s a workhorse. She’s someone who puts so much into our game, and there aren’t many who deserve this more.”
Beevers household at Wembley: “People want to be a part of history”
The Rhinos ace – who has already amassed a wealth of accolades in the game at a young age – will tonight (Tuesday) train with her teammates as usual.
They will head to the capital on Friday, and check out the hallowed turf prior to an overnight stay ahead of that midday kick-off on Saturday.
It’ll be a much earlier start for most of those travelling to support her on the day, but she detailed just how much they want to make that journey, stressing the importance of history being made off the field as well as on it.
Beevers affirmed: “My brother will be there, he’s my biggest supporter and my worst critic! His partner, my mum and dad, my partner, some of my family, old teachers, friends, current colleagues and older colleagues. You’ll hear them all right!
“People want to be a part of history and experience it with their own eyes. They don’t realise how much that means to us as players because we’re the ones supposedly making it, but they’re allowing us to do that.
“Something we always say is that if you have to pay into stadiums to watch our games, you doing that is actually progressing the game and putting money into the pot to further things in it.
“Wembley is a stage that’s used for unbelievable occasions in this country, so for us to be allowed that opportunity. I’m fortunate enough to have walked out at Wembley before, but to do it with my friends, with people I spend more time with than I do my own family, it really does mean a lot for me. We’re ready to go out there and make history in the right way.”