Woman of Steel Jodie Cunningham wants to leave a legacy by encouraging the next generation of girls to pick up a rugby ball.
The St Helens full-back or loose forward Cunningham was born and raised in the rugby league town of Warrington, but wasn’t much of a fan of the sport as a child.
In conversation with Love Rugby League, Cunningham recalled: “I’m from Warrington, which is obviously a big rugby league town. But my family weren’t actually rugby league fans at all, they were massively into football.
“I was a really sporty kid, I pretty much tried everything. I always said I’d love to be an Olympian or I’d love to represent my country but I didn’t really know in what.
“My dad took me to one rugby league game when I was younger, I’m not sure how old I was. He reminds me all the time now! I barely even remember it. I didn’t know what was going on, I didn’t know the rules and I wasn’t interested. It was a cold and drizzly night and I told him to never take me to a game again!
“We used to get paraded around at the Challenge Cup final when we won the Champion Schools finals. We got paraded around Warrington a bit as well so I just started watching it.
“I was sort of a Warrington supporter. I had a season ticket with the family and my family are crazy Warrington fans now. When the Women’s Super League season started and I signed at Saints, my dad at first was like ‘you can’t play for Saints!’ but even he has fallen in love with the club and everything they’ve done for me. Saints have been amazing. My mum goes mad if I don’t cheer for Warrington but my heart is with St Helens, it is just a fantastic club.”
Jodie Cunningham: Rugby league changed my life
Cunningham’s life changed forever when she was 12. She picked up a rugby ball for the first time when she started playing at high school.
She said: “I started playing at school at Cardinal Newman. The year I started was the year the Champion Schools started for girls. It was the first-ever year which I’m really grateful for. It changed my life.
“My best mate Emily Rudge played when she was younger with the lads, so she was in my ear telling me that I should try rugby league because I’d love it and she was absolutely right. She encouraged me to give it a go and I fell in love with the sport from minute go.”
Women’s Super League a ‘game-changer’
The women’s game changed forever in 2017 thanks to the ‘soft launch’ of the Women’s Super League. The four founding clubs of the WSL were Bradford, Castleford, Featherstone and Thatto Heath.
A year later, the Women’s Super League expanded with Leeds, York and Wigan joining whilst St Helens took over Thatto Heath. The competition was then expanded again in 2019 with the addition of Wakefield.
It has been a meteoric rise for the Women’s Super League. In 2020, the league grew again with Warrington and Huddersfield joining from the Championship. The RFL has also announced that Leigh Miners Rangers and Barrow will join the WSL in 2022.
Cunningham said: “They did a soft launch in 2017 and a full season in 2018. It was an absolute game changer.
“I’ve been part of the game for a long time. I started open age rugby in 2008, it had been very steady and there had been very little growth in that time right up until the Women’s Super League formed. The trajectory since then has just spiralled.
“You’ve got to give something the respect and credit it deserves and then people will start to become interested. The fact that we get to play with the Saints badge on our chest, we get to play at the Totally Wicked Stadium and that we are part of big events means that girls can see us.
“When I started playing I didn’t know women played rugby league. I didn’t know there was an England women’s team so I absolutely did not have this plan or aim to play for England rugby league because I didn’t know it was possible. But now, girls can see us, they can see us on the pitch, representing our country and on the television.
“There are so many young girls now who are getting involved with the sport just because they can see it happening. For me, the Women’s Super League is an absolute game changer. You have young girls now in the stands with Saints shirts on with women’s names on the back, so it is pretty magical.”
Jodie Cunningham named Woman of Steel
Cunningham enjoyed her best season to date in 2021, starting it at full-back and ending it at loose forward.
She captained Saints to the first treble since the Women’s Super League was formed and was named the Woman of Steel.
On the Woman of Steel award, Cunningham said: “I’m not a fancy player and you are not going to see me scoring full range tries but I just like to work really hard for the team.
“Defence is something that I love and I have transitioned from full-back to 13. I barely got to do any tackling but now I am in the thick of it all. I absolutely love it and that has probably been a key part in me progressing this year.
“The break that we had allowed me to bulk up a little bit and really focus on strength and conditioning work, that has helped me.
“I was shocked to get it and I think it could have gone to any one of my St Helens team-mates, they have all been outstanding. They deserve a helluva lot of credit for making me look good this year!”
Being an ambassador for the World Cup
Jodie Cunningham doesn’t get paid for playing, she does it purely out of her love for the game. Her day job is working as a community engagement lead for the 2021 Rugby League World Cup team.
The 21-time England international is also an ambassador for the women’s tournament.
On becoming an ambassador, Cunningham said: “That again was a shock.
“I’d just come back from the World Cup in 2017 and I had torn my ACL so I was facing a lengthy spell on the sidelines. I got asked to do a bit of a talk about my experience and I was fortunate enough that the World Cup CEO was in the audience and he said ‘do you want to be a part of it and be an ambassador?’ and with me being a rugby league nerd, I snapped his hand off for that.
“I’m so passionately about not only growing women’s rugby league, but rugby league as a whole. It’s changed my life and I want to get as many people involved as possible.
“I just started on that journey with the World Cup and now I work for them full-time. It’s amazing what they are doing for our sport, that is a huge driver as well for all the growth we are seeing. We’ve got a major event on home soil that is pretty special to be a part of. Hopefully more young girls are going to see that and want to get involved.”