Full-time jobs in the day, rugby players by night: The stories behind Women’s Super League stars

Ross Heppenstall
Shona Hoyle, Vicky Whitfield, Rachel Thompson Women's Super League Alamy

Shona Hoyle (left), Vicky Whitfield (centre) and Rachel Thompson (right) in action

Much is often made of the demands placed on part-time men’s players in the Championship and League 1 who usually balance a full-time job with a hectic rugby league schedule.

It is quite a contrast to the male Super League players who may finish training in early afternoon and also get a day off during the week.

But what of the women who train three nights a week and play at the weekend whilst working full-time and juggling family life?

Here, Love Rugby League delves behind the scenes at various Women’s Super League clubs to discover how players are making it work in an increasingly professional environment.

Earlier this month, St Helens joined Leeds Rhinos and York Valkyrie in paying their players and the Women’s Super League will be bigger than ever in 2024, with eight teams taking part.

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Shona Hoyle, Leeds Rhinos and England forward

Shona Hoyle England Alamy

Halifax-based Hoyle followed in the footsteps of close friend Amy Hardcastle by switching from St Helens to rivals Leeds.

The close-season move was driven by a desire to play with Hardcastle again but also to be nearer to her West Yorkshire home.

The mother of a 13-year-old son works at Carlton Bolling High School in Bradford and says they are extremely supportive.

Hoyle, 30, says: “I don’t think people realise what a big commitment playing rugby league can be alongside family and work time.

“Carlton Bolling are amazing and they used to let me leave early to go training at Saints because, if the traffic is bad, it’s a three-hour trip and that was stressful.

“Logistically, it’s so much easier being at Leeds now and they also have an amazing staff so we get incredibly well looked after.

“We’re very much in a professional environment for athletes and it’s only getting better.”

Hoyle become a mother aged 17 and son Leland is one of her biggest supporters.

“During the 2017 World Cup in Australia, Leland came out to watch and Amy Hardcastle’s daughter did too,” remembers Hoyle.

“My son says all the time ‘Mum, everyone always talks about you at school and it’s embarrassing.’

“But I tell him ‘you need to show how proud you are of me’ and I know he is.

“I’m just a girl from Yorkshire, living her dream, and I think if you want to play rugby league at the highest level, then if you’re committed and have the right lifestyle, you’ll go far.”

Hoyle says she and her partner have no plans for any more children and, as well as son Leland, her father is also a huge inspiration.

Hoyle reveals: “I nearly lost my dad last year. He had a heart attack and I played the next day.

“I was going to go to the hospital to see my dad but he said ‘no, you’re going to play’, so we played against Warrington and I scored three tries.

“Every time I play now, I write something about my dad on my hand.

“Family is everything and, while I loved my time at Saints, being at Leeds means I can spend more time with family as well.”

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Vicky Whitfield, St Helens and England prop

Vicky Whitfield St Helens Alamy

Whitfield had worked as an Events Coordinator for St Helens Chamber until it went into administration on March 14.

That left her and the majority of the organisation’s 71-strong workforce searching for alternative employment.

But until that point, working for the membership and training organisation and playing for St Helens had worked well for Whitfield.

Her boss at St Helens Chamber was Rachel Wellens, the wife of Saints men’s head coach Paul Wellens.

Whitfield said: “When I worked at St Helens Chamber, Rachel was basically my boss, so that was handy.

“She was really understanding of my training commitments with Saints Women and was my biggest champion as well in work.

“I worked as an Events Coordinator and it went hand in hand with rugby because I got to speak to a lot of the local businesses and talk to them about what I do at Saints but also my day job.”

Although St Helens Chambers went bust in mid-March, Whitfield this week secured new employment and took to social media to say: “Thanks for everyone who shared jobs ads and gave me advice.”

Whiston-born Whitfield, one of the stars of England’s World Cup campaign in 2022, has been around the game for over a decade.

She adds: “Amy Hardcastle and Vicky Molyneux are in their mid-thirties and great examples of how long you can play this game for.

“Being prop is a different because you’re playing in the middle and getting battered every week, but I’d love to get another World Cup under my belt.

“I’ve probably got another four or five years left in me, but life gets in the way sometimes, so who knows?”

NEXT GEN: Meet Beri Salihi: The St Helens young gun hoping to follow in Jodie Cunningham’s footsteps

Rachel Thompson, Wigan Warriors Women loose forward

Rachel Thompson Wigan Warriors Alamy
Rachel Thompson in action for Wigan Warriors

The Wiganer was the first player to sign for Wigan’s Women’s team ahead of the 2018 season.

In her debut season, she scored 16 tries in 17 appearances and won the Super League title against Leeds, becoming the first Wigan player to score a hat-trick in a Grand Final.

The 29-year-old grew up supporting the Cherry and Whites and combines her playing commitments with a full-time job as Wigan’s Women and Girls Rugby Operations Manager.

Denis Betts’ team train Tuesday and Thursday from 6:45pm to 9pm and, if they have a game at the weekend, captain’s run takes place at 7am on the Saturday morning.

Thompson explains: “It’s ideal for me because I don’t need to go home when I finish my day job – I just stay here for training.

“It does mean long days, though, as we might not finish until 9pm, which can be quite demanding when you’ve started work at 9am.

“But you do it because you love it and it’s our passion to grow the women’s game.

“It doesn’t feel like a chore, it’s great fun and a lifestyle that you commit to.”

On April 19, Wigan’s women’s team will play their first-ever game at the DW Stadium in their Super League opener against newly-promoted Barrow Raiders Ladies at 5:30pm.

That will take place before Matt Peet’s men’s team faces Castleford Tigers in their Round 8 clash.
Thompson adds: “I’m a diehard Wigan fan and it’s obvious how much respect Denis has around the club.

“As a Wigan fan sat in the stands at the DW Stadium, I have to pinch myself to now be playing there.

“It’s going to be surreal and quite emotional; something I never thought we’d experience during my playing career. But it’s absolutely what the girls deserve.”

READ MORE: Jodie Cunningham outlines long and short-term vision for St Helens women after historic pay deal

Lindsay Anfield, York Valkyrie head coach

York Valkyrie Women's Super League champions Alamy

It is not only players who juggle a job with their part-time rugby commitments, but coaches and support staff too, some of whom performed their roles on a voluntary basis.

Highly-respected Anfield, a PE teacher at a secondary school, heads up the increasingly professional environment at York Valkyrie.

She says: “With us training three nights a week here at York, it’s a massive commitment for us all.

“I’m the same as the girls, I’ll work all day, go home, get a quick change, grab something to eat, then you are out the door and not back until half nine, ten o’clock at night.

“I get every evening and weekend off work, so I’m not juggling shifts but the summer holidays are a challenge.

“Most teachers go on holiday whereas I’m committed to a team and have to be here for every game.

“These are sacrifices you make for the game we love but maybe I’ve got it easy compared to the girls because I’m just coaching whereas they’re on the field grafting!

“The girls are acting as professionals even though they have day jobs and that is to be admired.”

York player Kelsey Gentles recently returned from an 18-month sabbatical from the game after giving birth to her daughter Maia.

Gentles marked her comeback with a hat-trick in the 76-10 Challenge Cup win over Sheffield Eagles.

Anfield adds: “I think coming back to training was a little bit of a shock at first for Kelsey and she struggled at first with the detachment from her daughter.

“But she’s managed to really find her feet in terms of organising her support networks, managing her time, and I think it’s been good for Kelsey as a person to be a rugby league player again, and not just a mum.

“We’ve supported her as much as we can and it’s great to have her back in the team.”

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