Wigan Warriors captain Rachel Thompson: ‘It’s hard not to think about walking out at Wembley’

Ben Olawumi
Rachel Thompson

Rachel Thompson poses for a picture ahead of the 2021 season

Wigan Warriors’ Rachel Thompson has admitted that the prospect of a historic Wembley appearance in the Challenge Cup final is one she can’t quite put to the back of her mind, but with a progressive young squad, they’re relishing Sunday’s semi-final against Leeds Rhinos regardless of the result.

The Cherry and Whites captain was the first-ever Warriors player signed for the women’s team when it was formed in 2018. That first year saw her race up the try-scoring charts, and she grabbed a hat-trick in the Grand Final as Wigan defeated – coincidentally – Leeds to become the inaugural Women’s Super League champions.

Five years on, and the two sides will meet again this weekend at Headingley, with this battle having a trip to the capital next month on the line. On August 12, history will be made as the Women’s Challenge Cup final is played at Wembley for the first time, and Thompson has expressed her excitement.

Skipper Thompson finding it hard not to think about Wembley

“It’s hard not to think about the thought of walking out at Wembley, but we only get to do that if we can perform on Sunday,” the centre told to The Sportsman’s ‘The Last Tackle’ show on YouTube.

“It’s not something I thought I would be saying anytime soon. The growth of the women’s game over the past couple of years has been massive, but I think even I probably thought this was still going to be a few years down the line.

“It’s massive for the game and there’s a different feeling now when you’re talking about a semi-final to the girls and you’re trying to get them geared up.

“You only have to mention the word ‘Wembley’ and it sends them to a different level of excitement. For us, that is the bigger picture but we’ve got a job to do on Sunday.”

Rachel Thompson: “The game has never been this big”

28-year-old Thompson was appointed captain of the Warriors ahead of the 2020 season. The former England international played for local sides Westhoughton Lions ARLFC, Leigh Miners ARLFC and Thatto Heath ARLFC before joining Wigan. With the Cherry and Whites, she’s recently played her part in an overhaul at the club which has seen plenty of change to the playing squad.

Wigan now have a women’s academy setup in full swing, and the average age of their squad this year has dropped substantially. It’s for that reason that Thompson wants her younger colleagues to embrace the occasion at Headingley as ‘the game has never been this big’ before.

She affirmed: “We’ve got girls in our team who are only 17 years old, they’ll have never experienced anything on this level, but even the older girls we’ve got in our squad won’t have experienced this either.

“The game has never been this big, so it’s added pressure, but starting them off at a young age means that hopefully in years to come they’ll be able to handle this pressure much better.

“Win or lose on Sunday, it’s an experience that will be so beneficial to all of us. The girls coming through there are really exciting to watch.”

Returning from a lengthy lay-off

For a long time, Thompson’s leadership role had to be one that was carried out off the field. At the end of the 2021 campaign, a play-off game against Castleford Tigers saw her limp off, damaging her ACL, MCL and LCL.

Surgery required to rectify those injuries sidelined the captain for the entirety of the 2022 season, and only this year has she been able to get back out on the pitch alongside those younger squad members being blooded through.

Kris Ratcliffe’s side currently sit fourth in Group 1 on the WSL ladder, winning two and drawing one of their six matches so far in 2023. One of the three losses came recently against Leeds, who ran riot at Robin Park Arena and claimed a 52-0 whitewash win.

Thompson said: “We’ve had some really good performances and results, but then we’ve had some disappointing ones. When we start to get it right, we’re really dangerous and a team that people should be worried about.

“We are building constantly, we just need a little bit more consistency… There’s a real togetherness at the club at the minute, and to be able to play a double-header with them [the men’s team] means that they’ll get to see us and we’ll get to see them.”

The Rhinos and Warriors meet at Headingley with a 2.15pm kick-off on Sunday. It’s live on BBC iPlayer, and is a pre-cursor to the men’s Challenge Cup semi-final which sees Hull KR face Wigan (5pm KO).

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