Jodie Cunningham has seen and done pretty much everything possible in her St Helens career so far, but the prospect of writing her name into the history books oncemore at Wembley has made her hungrier than ever.
For the first time, the Women’s Challenge Cup final will be played at the national stadium next month. It’ll form part of a quadruple-header alongside the equivalent of the Champion Schools, 1895 Cup and Men’s Challenge Cup.
A decade ago, Saints – then known as Thatto Heath Crusaders – lifted the silverware with a big win over Bradford ‘Thunderbirds’ (Bulls). That final was played at Batley Bulldogs’ Mount Pleasant.
Cunningham was involved, and speaking ahead of this weekend’s semi-final showdown with York Valkyrie at Warrington Wolves’ Halliwell Jones Stadium, she says Wembley seemed a million miles away.
Jodie Cunningham on ‘one of the biggest games’ of her career
The 2021 Woman of Steel affirmed: “If you’d have told me back then that we’d have been playing at the Halliwell Jones, I don’t think I’d have believed that, so to think that it’s an 80-minute performance away from playing at Wembley is huge.
“There’s a lot at stake and any semi-final is pressure, of course you always want to win, but I think this one for both teams is even more special. There’s so much more riding on it, to be the first women’s team to get there [Wembley] is going to be pretty epic.
“With what’s riding on this, to be part of history and play at Wembley, it does feel like one of the biggest games of my career.
“I spoke with Emily Rudge, we’ve had a very similar journey and been there from the start together. The Challenge Cup’s been very special for us and that’s how we fell in love with the game, going down to Wembley and getting paraded as winners of the Champ Schools.
“To then go there and play in a Challenge Cup final ourselves is just history making, so that’s what we want to do. It’s going to drive us on at the weekend.”
St Helens hoping for a double
Cunningham is even more excited about the occasion of the semi-final given the double-header on offer. After the women’s team – headed up by former player Matty Smith – take on York, their male colleagues take the helm as they look to book their own spot at Wembley with a victory over Leigh Leopards.
Captain Cunningham will make a return to action on Saturday for the first time since late May, when she picked up an injury in a Women’s Super League victory over Leeds Rhinos.
And for the 31-year-old utility, having their male counterparts playing at the same venue on the same day can only play into their hands. The last time that happened in the Challenge Cup, 12 months ago, the women’s team lifted the trophy after a final victory against Leeds at Elland Road.
She added: “We’re grateful for the lads for getting here again to help us out! It’s just a really good day for the club.
“Elland Road was my first real experience of a crowd driving us, it was a really close game and after half time with Saints fans there in big numbers, we were on our line and Leeds were probably on top at that point in the game.
“The crowd started singing, and there was just no chance we were going to miss a tackle in front of that Saints end. We went up the other end, scored a try and went in front for the first time, so we know how powerful a crowd can be and we’ll absolutely be looking forward to them getting in high voice again f0r us, hopefully driving us on to a win.”
Super League’s finest stand in the way of Wembley history
2021 was an unforgettable year for Cunningham and co. On their way to doing the treble, they beat York in the Challenge Cup final at the Leigh Sports Village. In a six-try haul, the skipper played a vital role in tearing the then-Knights’ defence apart.
Since then though, York have strengthened and now stand alone at the top of the Women’s Super League – Group 1 table. Lindsay Anfield’s side are unbeaten, only dropping a single point in a draw to Leeds which came over the weekend.
St Helens sit second, and having already been beaten once by Saturday’s opponents, Cunningham is looking forward to the challenge that lies ahead if they are to reach Wembley.
“That’s what you want, that’s why this game is so exciting. York are playing so well at the minute, they’re unbeaten in the league, so we know what challenge we’ve got ahead of us.
“We know that to beat them we have to be at our best, and we’re preparing for that. All the girls are ready to be in a battle because you play sport for the games that are unpredictable, and that’s what Saturday is.”