A new Wembley dream for St Helens’ Leah Burke after ACL heartbreak

Leah Burke suffered a heartbreaking injury which saw her miss out on a Wembley appearance last season, but she is gearing up for a return to action in 2024 and feeling stronger than ever.

LEAH BURKE has more reasons than most to hope St Helens get back to Wembley this season. 

As her teammates were on the hallowed turf celebrating a third cup success in as many years, the 25-year-old was enduring one of her toughest ever days.

Just months before last August’s historic showdown, the winger suffered every player’s worst nightmare – a ruptured ACL, with the knee injury ruling her out of not only the season but the biggest day in the club’s short history.

But Saints are now back on the Wembley trail, reaching the semi-finals, Burke is hoping a torrid year can be brought to an end in the best possible way.

“It has been a long journey but I have been able to focus on myself and work getting fitter and stronger,” said Burke, who returned for Saints’ final group game against Warrington before scoring three tries in the quarter-final against Huddersfield.

“When I got the injury I knew that if I worked hard it would be a good opportunity to develop physically in other ways that I wouldn’t get the chance to do if just training as usual. Hopefully, the extra work I’ve been doing in the gym will see me come back fitter, stronger and faster than ever before.

“I’m stronger mentally as well. A big injury like this really challenges you and if you can get through it and come out the other side, you’re mentally stronger for the experience.

“I’d started the season really well, had played for England and was really enjoying how things had started, so it was hard to then have to sit out of some really big games and watch the other girls out there. 

“Wembley and the Challenge Cup Final was one of the hardest days in the whole process. I was so glad we’d got there, but it was tough knowing that I wasn’t going to be out there playing on that pitch

“I spent the game in the coaches box with Matty (Smith) and the others, which was a nice touch. So the day was made special in other ways and I was thankful for the experience of being down there. 

“I was delighted we got the win, but deep down it was mentally one of the tougher days I’ve faced.

“But that makes me even more determined to help get us there again when I am back playing.

“I remember on the day of the final it was announced it would be back at Wembley for the next three years and I put this year’s date in my calendar straight away. 

“It’s the 8th June, which will be pretty much a year on from me getting the injury, so even then, getting to the final again was the long-term aim.

“Of course, the whole team want to get back there, but for me if I could run out there, knowing that I’d recovered from the injury and was back after the year I’ve had – it would just be so special.”

The very fact that the England international can even contemplate an appearance under the Wembley Arch is down purely to the club, who have always ensured the right structure is in place for its players.

The latest stage of that structure will see the Saints stars paid match fees for the first time this year.

But if the past nine months have reaffirmed anything for Burke, it is that some things are more important than money.

“People don’t appreciate how important medical cover is until they need it,” added Burke.

“It is so important and Saints have always looked after anyone who gets injured at the club. That’s one of the big positives of being here.

“Having that access to private health care has been massive for me, and so important in my recovery.

“I got the injury on the Sunday then had the scan, and found out the results, on the Monday. Within the same week, I saw the consultant and he’d done the surgery within three weeks. 

“I couldn’t have asked for anything more. Had I had to go through the NHS I’d probably still be waiting for the operation and that is not what you want to be doing when you’re in this sort of professional environment.

“But that care comes because everyone at the club holds themselves to the highest professional standards so match payments are the next logical step. The club have got everything in position for us players so this is the next step on our journey and is a reward for our performances on the field.

“It is crazy to think I can now say that I get paid to play rugby league. All the girls started playing because we love the game, that’s still the same and these payments are a bonus on top of that. 

“It can cost a lot to play the game – the cost of petrol to training, the price of boots, things like that, so this just makes life a bit easier and contributes to those costs.”

As a game, we might still be some way off having the female stars as true professionals, but it is definitely the start of a journey, and it’s one Burke feels honoured to be a part of.

“At Saints, we do act as professional players and I always say that it feels like I have two full-time jobs most of the time,” added Burke, who works for the Environment Agency in the Partnership and Strategic Overview team.

“We’ve never before had that financial reward of being a professional athlete, but these payments are the next step in getting the game to that point.

“I don’t know when it will happen, but we will get to the point that we have full-time female rugby league players, and when it does it will be incredible to look back and know that we were there at the start of that journey.”

First published in Rugby League World magazine, Issue 495 (April 2024)

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