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

Drew Darbyshire
Jodie Cunningham St Helens Alamy

St Helens made more history earlier this week by becoming the latest club to confirm they would be making payments for their Women’s Super League players.

The Saints are the third club to reward their women’s players for their efforts on the field, following in the footsteps of Leeds Rhinos and York Valkyrie, who made their historic announcements this time last year.

St Helens have had plans in place to take their women’s side to the next level for several years, with the players’ medical needs, physio, strength and conditioning, gym memberships and nutrition all covered in 2023.

But they’ve now taken the next step. Players will get receive a match payment each time they pull on the famous Red V jersey in 2024.

And Jodie Cunningham – the England and St Helens captain – has recently taken on a full-time role with the club as head of women’s pathways and performance.

The 32-year-old, who is one of the biggest advocates for the growth of women’s rugby league in the northern hemisphere, has lofty ambitions for the club, with short-term and long-term visions already in mind..

The short-term vision: What does it look like?

Matty Smith and Jodie Cunningham St Helens Alamy
Jodie Cunningham (right) signing her paid contract on the dotted line

Love Rugby League was invited to St Helens’ media event on Wednesday, speaking to Cunningham about their historic announcement, what’s next, and, ultimately, the long-term vision.

“You should see my emails and my notepad that has got a million things on,” Cunningham laughed when asked about the short-term goals regarding the Saints women’s team.

“That’s what my job is to figure out, that’s one of the conversations I had with Mike (Rush, chief executive), we spoke about the fact that it’s all happened relatively quickly. The women’s game has gone from 0 to 100 in the space of three or four years.

“Clubs weren’t set up for that really, they were set up to facilitate a men’s first team, an academy and a scholarship – and that’s for everything – from facilities, to space on pitches, number of hours played on this pitch.. Everything has now doubled because you’ve got a women’s team, a women’s academy, we are going to be bringing in an Under-16s.. You’ve got all this additional resource, plus the fact that women are different with different demands and needs.

“We spoke a lot about how quickly it’s gone and the club is trying to catch up with how quickly it has gone, and we need a strategy for how we are going to get there.

“We know what we are going to do, we knew we wanted to introduce payments.. Right okay, if we are going to do that, how do we make sure we do it right? How do we make sure we start to bring in the money that allows it to happen? Sometimes you’ve got to run before you walk because we’ve got to make sure we don’t lose players to York and Leeds and Wigan and whoever else.. We’ve got to get there but then how do we start to bring that money in? The club backs us and the club are willing to put that money and resource into it because they know it’s the right thing to do.

“My job over the next year is to start trying to find ways of bringing that money back in, like bringing in more people through the turnstiles, bringing in more commercial and player sponsorship – adding value in that way is the initial instance.

“And also getting an Under-16s set up, that’s a really important part of it, selecting the best Under-15s and Under-16s that are going to be the next Challenge Cup winners at this club. That’s the short-term plan.”

And what are the plans long-term?

It’s probably fair to say that nobody expected the Women’s Super League to have THIS much of a rapid rise when the competition was launched in 2017.

WSL games are now being shown regularly on Sky Sports and the BBC, matches are being held at elite stadiums, the Women’s Challenge Cup final was staged at Wembley in 2023, and now players at three clubs – Leeds, York and St Helens – are receiving match payments.

“Long-term, who knows?” Cunningham continued with an enthusiastic grin. “Maybe I’ll be sorting out contracts and doing deals for players in Australia? Going off how quickly it has gone, who knows what it’s going to be like?

“I’m really grateful that I can be part of that, I’m so passionate that I can be part of the women’s game, I’m really glad that I’ve got a voice in it, and that the club value me enough.

“This job sort of came out of nowhere, it wasn’t a plan as such, it was a ‘we need this strategy’ that you’re talking about.. We need a one-year plan, a three-year plan, a five-year plan and a 10-year plan.. Someone has got to come in and do that. The resource isn’t there to do it right now, so someone has got to come in and do it, and the club backed me enough to think that I could do it, so hopefully I don’t let them down.”

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St Helens coach Matty Smith and Jodie Cunningham lifting the Women's Challenge Cup Alamy
St Helens women’s coach Matty Smith (left) and captain Jodie Cunningham lifting the Challenge Cup in 2023

Cunningham, who was formerly national women’s and girls’ development manager at the Rugby Football League, became a full-time member of staff at her beloved Saints in January.

Her official title is head of women’s pathways and performance. She is no stranger to a lengthy job title, which probably emphasises how much ground she covers when it comes to the women’s game and it’s growth.

“I do bits of everything really,” Cunningham explained. “In general, my job is to help lead the women’s programme at Saints.

“I’ve been heavily involved in things like today, making different things special for the girls. We had a signing day, the girls got to bring their families in and talk about how special that was internally as a team and have that moment together for us and our families. It’s things like that – little touches – that mean the world to people and I love to be involved with things like that.

“I’ve now got a lot of pressure, I spoke to Mike a lot around that, and that’s fine. We are going to keep introducing different things, we are going to keep raising the standards, making it more professional but all of that costs money, so we’ve got to find different ways of bringing that in as well, like working closely with commercial and sponsorship.

“How do we bring in women’s only sponsors? How do we up certain things? How do we change packages so that it is more bespoke to the women? Those are all different aspects of my job as well as looking at pathways, making sure that we’ve got an incredible squad that I know has the talent to win trophies.. I need to make sure that’s the case for many years after myself, Rudgey (Emily Rudge), TJ (Tara Jones) and Channy (Crowl) hang our boots up.

“We need to make sure there are loads of girls coming up that are going to carry on winning trophies for this club, so it’s about looking at all the pathways, putting strategies in place for that, and making sure that the best talent wants to be at this club.

“I think today has proven that we do things right here and hopefully there are lots of young girls out there that are now thinking ‘I’m going to play for Saints one day’. Hopefully I can be part of helping make that happen.”

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