England and St Helens women’s captain Jodie Cunningham answers your questions in Rugby League World’s Quickfire Q & A

LaniM: What was it like meeting, and watching a game with, the Duchess of Cambridge last year?
It was amazing. It was one of those moments that you probably don’t appreciate at the time until afterwards when you look back and reflect on it. Emily (Rudge) and I sat with her during the second half of the England men’s game at Wigan and we were worried about saying the wrong thing or it being a bit awkward and silent, but it wasn’t at all. She was so lovely, and she asked loads of questions – there wasn’t a quiet moment through the whole half. She was really interested in our journeys, how we’d got involved and what our training was like, so it was surreal. But I probably didn’t appreciate what an amazing opportunity that was until afterwards when so many people were asking about it. We even got a selfie with her which was a bit crazy as well. I didn’t know if it was ok to ask for a picture, but Rudgey just asked her and she was really accommodating. It was a really special moment, and great that I could share it with Emily as well.

Bedfordshire Bronco: What do you think about the proposed eight-team World Cup from the Aussies in 2025?
There have been lots of different suggestions and rumours thrown about, but there has been nothing official as of yet, so as a Women’s team we still don’t know what’s happening. Hopefully we can get a really great tournament played again that includes Men’s, Women’s and Wheelchair, because for me that worked brilliantly well last year for all teams and made for the biggest celebration of rugby league. To lose that would be a step backwards. I appreciate that we’re in a difficult situation with not too long left to turn around a World Cup, but for me and the England team, we’re just focusing on us and making sure we’re ready for whenever, hopefully, we get the go ahead for our World Cup.

unapologetic pedant: Despite huge growth in women and girls RL we play the Jillaroos and Kiwi Ferns less often now than 20-25 years ago. England have played Australia only once at 13 a-side since 2013. Are you aware of any RFL/NRL conversations about a prospective test series?
There are always ongoing conversations around when we can try and get those sorts of games in, but there are challenges. As England, we’re always talking about the more times we can play teams like Australia and New Zealand and test ourselves against them, and improve, the more likely we are to get the success that we want in the World Cup. We know it’s something that we need and I’m sure the RFL and England are trying hard to make that happen. It’s difficult, and it’s costly, and even the men struggle to get games against Australia a lot of the time. Hopefully it will be on the cards in the next couple of years, because if anything, the last World Cup showed that we’re up there and competing. On another day we could have beaten New Zealand and then we would have been in a final and who knows what might have happened. That went a long way to prove that they would be brilliant games if we got that opportunity to play a test against them.
Pulga: Have you ever considered going over to Australia to play in the NRLW? How close have you been to taking the plunge?
There have been a few conversations but it’s just not right for me with where I’m at in my personal life. I have a job that I absolutely love where I am helping to develop the women’s and girl’s game over here. I love the journey I’m on with St Helens, and with everything that the club has given me, I feel the need to keep giving back to them. And who knows, if I had made the choice to go out there, I may not have been made England captain. For me it’s right to be here, but for the ones that have gone over it’s the right decision for them and I don’t blame them at all. It will be such an amazing life experience and I think the three that have gone out there will absolutely kill it and I am looking forward to cheering them on.

Dunbar: The NRLW seem to be deliberately growing the elite competition at a slow pace, with just five rounds in 2021 and 2022 and nine rounds this year. What do think of this strategy? Would you prefer to see the women’s and men’s games play a similar season or are you happy to build slowly as the quality and player pool develops?
The money they have available to put into their competition is completely different to where we are, so it is something we need to look at differently, how can we get the same sort of results but in a different way? It will be interesting to see how they go now that they have increased the number of teams and their talent pool spread across more teams, there might be a slight drop in standard because of that, but hopefully not. It is a condensed season, But I think what we have done over here has worked for what we wanted to achieve. There have been different challenges with the different options we’ve gone with, but we’re going in the right direction. Last year we had three different winners of the main trophies and we’re seeing some really competitive games. We know it’s going to take time, but with the talent we have coming through, and the sheer amount of girls now playing, we will see the fruits of all the hard work that has gone in to all the different pathways and done by the foundations and community clubs.

Man of Kent: The NRLW has 70-minute matches, 10 interchanges and 40/30 and 20/50 kicks. Should the British game follow suit? Are there any other women-specific rule changes you’d potentially like to see?
Personally I really dislike the shortened game time and have been quite vocal about that in the past. As athletes we are more than capable of giving a great quality product over 80 minutes. But if talks of broadcasts came in to it and shorter games made it easier to get them shown, that’s a different conversation, but in terms of any changes, that’s one I’m not keen on. One I would like to see and get behind trialling at the very least, is smaller ball size. Biologically, women have smaller hands than men, so when we see all these great, acrobatic, ball in one hand tries in the men’s game every week, that’s a really tough ask for us because of the ability to grip the ball with smaller hands. It would be worth trialling to see if we see more exciting and skilful tries in the women’s game because of the different ball control we would then have.
BroncoFan: I’d love to see a Women’s under 18 England Academy team tour Australia, that would be amazing. There is some great young talent currently at WSL clubs. What do you think?
I completely agree that we have so much incredible talent coming through right now so the talent is there for a tour like that, but we’d still face the same challenges of costs and funding. But if the ability was there to get a tour like that, then it would be great experience for the younger girls to go out there and test themselves. It would be exciting as well from an international point of view of the future talent we’ve got ahead of us.

unapologetic pedant: What lessons did you learn from the Warrington girls tour of Australia that you and Emily Rudge went on in 2008? And what changes did you notice when you went back for the World Cup in 2017?
It was a great life and playing experience when we went out there. We were playing under 16s at the time but some of the teams we were playing were older and we were playing the best Australia had to offer. We did really well and some were shocked at how good a side we were. If anything it gave us confidence that we could match it with the best Australia had to offer. That was back in 2008 and since then Australia have made huge strides in their women’s and girl’s development and we noticed the biggest change when they came over for the World Cup in 2013, they’d put a lot of time and funding into the game, and by 2017 it was evident just how good a team Australia are. At the age of 16 we were all just really keen to go out and make a name for ourselves in the game, and that tour gave us the confidence to do that going into the open age game.

gingerjon: A rather rubbish genie pops out of a lamp and grants you one wish, but you can only use it to improve women’s rugby league in England. What is your one wish?
It would be for a really big commercial sponsor to come in that can really see the value of the women’s and girl’s game. Someone who wants to see genuine change, where it wouldn’t just be about making the top tier professional but would provide funding across the board to make it as strong as it can be. That would be incredible.
Gerrumonside ref: How do you and your teammates feel about playing double-headers with the male teams?
I love it. Again there are some challenges. The double-headers mean earlier kick-offs and that can be difficult on a Thursday or Friday night when we’re working in the day, but the opportunities we get from a double-header like getting games on Sky are great. It also gives new fans the chance to see a women’s game, and some of them might decide they want to come back and watch more women’s games every week. Double-headers make for a great occasion and at this point in time it’s a great way to showcase the game.

RBKnight: Given the blow-out scores already being inflicted on the bottom two teams by the top three in Super League One, do you think expanding the top division from six to eight clubs next year might be too much, too soon?
There will be challenges in expanding to eight teams next year, but it is also a part of the journey needed to get to the point we want to be at. There are some great teams in Super League Two that are doing all the right things and deserve the chance to get into the top section. The only way that everyone gets better is to get to the point where we have a really good eight team competition at the top with competitive games. I’m not saying there won’t still be some blow out scores, I’m sure there will be to begin with, but there are teams that are fighting for those extra spots that will come in and strengthen the competition. Look how well Leigh are going this year, they are getting some great results and really growing, and they will grow into the competition. Barrow are doing some brilliant things as well and there is so much talent around that when we see them come into the first teams across the board in the next couple of years then we won’t see as many blow out scores. Teams like Leeds, St Helens and York will have full squads and these young talented players will go and get spots in other teams so that they can play and really strengthen them. There will be challenges to begin with, but it’s the right way to go.

Eddie: Would you rather play the Challenge Cup Final at Wembley and the Grand Final at Old Trafford before the men’s games, or play them as stand-alone events at smaller grounds?
To me, having the Challenge Cup Final at Wembley feels like the biggest thing to ever happen in my career. When that was announced it was a game changer for women’s rugby league. I absolutely support that being a double-header final because at the moment it’s the only way we can get into a stadium like that. We’ll prove on the day we deserve to be at a stadium like that. I have such a strong connection with the Challenge Cup because my first experience of playing was in the Champion Schools where we played the finals the day before and were then paraded at Wembley. So to have the game there is a huge opportunity for everyone. Having the Grand Final at Old Trafford could be another opportunity to progress, and every year there has been something new in the women’s game that I never thought I would see, so I wouldn’t be surprised if Old Trafford was on the cards in the next few years. But we also have an opportunity to do our own Grand Final, so I’m not saying it always has to be a double-header for that, but from a Challenge Cup perspective, linking the two together to allow a celebration of the whole game gives me butterflies.
moorside roughyed: What’s the most important try you’ve ever scored?
That’s a tough question… but it’s probably the try I scored in the Challenge Cup Final at Elland Road last year. It was such a tough game against Leeds and was very tight and very physical. Leeds had a period where they seemed to be getting on top of us and it was at the point that Saints fans started to fill out the stadium for the men’s semi-final. They were all together, and we were on our line, Leeds nearly scored and then missed a penalty. The crowd really got behind us and we virtually went the full length and I scored which put us ahead for the first time in that game. That felt really important at the time and it proved to be. We got a couple more tries, and Eboni Partington was incredible that day, but at the time, with Leeds having been on top, it felt like an important one. And to back up the previous year’s win and win the Cup again was pretty special.

Richard de la Riviere: On a scale of 1-10, how excited are you about the impending autobiography of Channy Crowl?
10… Absolute 10. Channy is such an incredible character and I have been lucky enough to know her for many years. We used to play against each other in our girl’s teams and then started playing alongside each other at Thatto Heath. She’s a really close friend and a brilliant person. She’s had her own struggles through life, but has the most incredible stories to tell. I’m sure it will be a great read with lots of tears and chuckles.

@emma_tr4_rhinos: If you could attend any sporting event in the world which would you choose and why?
I was always a huge Olympics fan growing up and still get really caught up with it whenever they’re on. I was lucky enough to get some tickets for London 2012, so I feel like I have ticked that box off, so I’ll be predictable and say State of Origin. I’ve never been to a State of Origin game, but those games are something I look forward to in the calendar every year and try to plan the work schedule so that I can catch the game, or at least try to avoid seeing the score before getting chance to watch it back. Hopefully it’s an achievable goal to get there one day and hopefully go with my family as as they’re all big fans of it as well.

@abuchananfans: What is the most interesting place you have been to?
Papua New Guinea. I was really fortunate to go out there with England and play two tests in 2019 and that experience was just unreal. Just to see everybody being absolutely obsessed with rugby league was so lovely because I’m obsessed with rugby league, so are my teammates – I think if you’re involved in the game it’s hard not to be obsessed with it. But it feels like the biggest kept secret over here and not enough people know how good rugby league is, but over there everyone is just crazy for it. There are people living in huge poverty and really struggling so that made me really grateful for everything I have. Also, it was a beautiful place to visit and everyone was really welcoming. So the whole experience, even when you take rugby league out of it, and seeing this brand new country that was completely different to anywhere I’d ever been before was one I will always treasure. It’s not a place many people will get to visit so I am grateful I had the opportunity to do it.

First published in Rugby League World magazine, Issue 487 (August 2023)

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