21 years that transformed Women’s Rugby League
One of the all-time greats of the women’s game, Gemma Walsh recently retired after 21 years as a player with Golborne Girls, Hindley Ladies, Wakefield Panthers, Featherstone Rovers, Thatto Heath Crusaders and Wigan.
She signed for St Helens, but due to Covid and injury, she never pulled on the Red Vee.
She debuted for Great Britain in the 2000 World Cup at just 16 years old and played twice more in the competition for England in 2008 and 2013. She is married to the current England captain, Emily Rudge.
RR: If you could relive one day from your career, which would it be?
I think it would have to be the 2018 Grand Final win with Wigan over Leeds. I played for a long time but that was very special. It was the first year Wigan had a ladies team. Few thought we would go far in the season, let alone win the competition, but we did it.
RR: Your dad played for Wigan, Huddersfield and Blackpool. What do you know about his career?
Not as much as I should know!
RR: How did you begin your Rugby League journey?
Living in Wigan, getting into Rugby League was natural. My brother played and I would knock about with his team. We would watch games on TV as a family. But there weren’t many women’s teams about, so I didn’t start playing until I was 15 with Golborne Girls. It was under-16 and we just played a few friendlies.
When I turned 16, I signed for Hindley Ladies. I had a season there and then signed for Wakefield Panthers, who are now Featherstone Rovers. Brenda Dobek was the player-coach, and she was a massive influence on me making that move. She is one of the best players I ever played with. I did one year of travelling, which involved my dad taking me to the train station, then getting two trains and a lift at the other end. I’d train twice a week, so it took its toll. I moved over for my next season, so I could commit properly.
RR: So there was no Thatto team at the time?
No, there were only Hindley and Hillside on this side of the Pennines. I wanted to play for Great Britain and with Wakefield and Bradford Thunderbirds the best teams at the time, it felt right to move on.
RR: In your 21-year playing career, how has the game progressed?
With the introduction of Super League and RFL backing, the game has progressed massively. It’s also moved forward at grassroots, with girls playing in schools and with junior clubs. On the field, things are different now in terms of style. There’s more emphasis on strength and conditioning and nutrition, and there is now access to physios. At Wakefield, we just turned up, trained and played.
I played with some exceptionally talented players in terms of skill levels and having a rugby brain, but now it’s more a case of looking at athletes and turning them into rugby players.
RR: That’s depressing to hear.
It’s just my opinion and others may disagree. I players with some of the best and I played against Australia and New Zealand in Tests. There was less emphasis on strength and conditioning back then, and more on the rugby itself.
RR: Tactically, how does the women’s game differ from the men’s? Is there more ball movement?
The top teams play a similar style to the men. The game plan isn’t far away. There’s a lot of emphasis on looking at what men are doing and implementing that into the women’s game. And, of course, male coaches will draw on their experiences as players.
RR: You debuted for Great Britain in the 2000 World Cup as a 16-year-old. You beat Australia but lost to New Zealand in the final. How daunting was it at such a young age?
At the time, it was quite daunting. I’d only had a few games in open age, so to earn a place in the squad and play against players I’d heard a lot about, was very exciting. I had a bit of cockiness about me and probably didn’t realise how big an occasion it was.
RR: You toured Australia with Great Britain in 2002, losing a three-match series by two games to one. You captained the side in midweek wins over Queensland and Canberra. What sacrifices did you make to go on that tour?
There was a lot of begging and pleading to get time off! I had understanding bosses at the time and they knew it meant a lot to me.
Financially, we had to raise £1,000 each just to get on the plane. There was no support from the governing body. My club helped. We did bag packing in supermarkets, bucket collection at grounds like Castleford and my dad had a few contacts who could sponsor me personally.
I went into the tour with a knee injury. It didn’t affect me all the time, but after one of the regional games, a local physio told me I’d snapped my ACL and I’d been playing without realising.
The coach Jackie Sheldon thought it was wise to leave me out of the last two Tests. I only had my ACL operated on in 2009, so I played for six years with no ACL. I just strengthened the hamstring and quad muscles around it and had an intense programme to make sure I got through the 2008 World Cup.
RR: You were the England captain in that World Cup and scored a hat-trick against France. What are your memories of the competition?
It was really tough. The schedule was ridiculous – five games in eight days – and the cunning Australians scheduled our games in the midday sun! My mum and dad came out to support us, which was great. The games against New Zealand and Australia were so close, but silly little decisions let us down. It’s still one of my biggest regrets that we didn’t go all the way and we probably got even closer in the 2013 World Cup.
RR: While men’s Rugby League often looks like its drowning in its own negativity, the women’s game appears to be the complete opposite – genuinely inclusive with little or no in-fighting. Is that an accurate assessment?
Yes, I completely agree. The women just love playing the game. No one gets paid. There are full-time workers, students and mothers playing the game. People who watch it are very positive. You’ll always get comparisons with the men’s game and there’s sometimes a negative comment on social media. Garry Schofield tweeted about the standard of the 2019 Grand Final and got some backlash. What perhaps he didn’t realise was that a lot of the players had worked a nightshift and then got on the bus to play in the game. If people come down and watch the game, they will generally like it.
RR: You and Emily have played with and against each other. It’s quite a well-known story but tell us about the first time you were on opposite sides.
There was a big build-up to the game with it being the first Wigan against St Helens derby in the women’s game. Emily and I had spoken about being professional with us being on opposite sides. Then I think she forgot about that because five or ten minutes into the game, I shot up out of the line to put some pressure on her because she was their go-to player and she dropped her shoulder. I had turned and wasn’t looking, and she clattered into me. A penalty was given against her, but to this day she says it was my fault for rushing up!
We won that game, but Emily isn’t a sore loser – unlike me! – so she took the defeat relatively well. Saints beat us the following year, and I didn’t take it too well!
RR: Would you instinctively worry if she were involved in a big collision?
Yes, obviously – playing rugby is something we love, but it’s your wife and you don’t want to see the person you love get hit or potentially get hurt. She’s a very good player though and can look after herself. It was tough to try and put that aside for 80 minutes. But it’s harder now watching her play when I’m not on the field.
RR: In 2017 you tweeted a very strong criticism of the way the women’s game was being run and of overall standards. Four years on, have those concerns been addressed?
Since then the Super League has been created and the game is moving in the right direction, but I still feel the English game is lacking the quality and support that the Australian and New Zealand players have. Women players in Australia are semi-professional and are contracted to the clubs. Over here, it’s more of a struggle.
RR: You crossed the great divide last year to join Emily at St Helens before Covid and injury struck.
As a Wiganer, I never thought I’d be devastated not to play for Saints! Covid played its part last year and then I picked up an injury before this season was due to start. I always said I’d listen to my body. I’ve played with a lot of injuries and no doubt I’ll suffer in years to come but it was time to finish.
RR: How would you rate England’s prospects at this year’s World Cup?
I think they have a chance. It’s a home World Cup but there’s a lot of work to be done. There’s still a gap domestically so it will be tough, but we can do it.
RR: Who will the key players be?
Georgia Roche is one of the players to look out for. She’s got a natural rugby brain and she’s very skilful. Everyone knows what Emily can do – she’s strong, competitive and super fit. Then there’s Amy Hardcastle, who’s very experienced. She’s a seasoned international and she’s been great at St Helens.
RR: Brazil are entering a side in the women’s World Cup. What do you know about them?
Absolutely nothing! I expect them to be very fit and to have players from other sports. It was a big surprise to see them included, especially at the expense of Fiji, judging by Adrian Vowles’ reaction on Twitter, but their inclusion is brilliant for the game.
RR: Could the women’s game in the UK go semi-professional if the World Cup is successful?
I don’t think there’s enough money in the men’s game at the moment. So much more money is needed for that and unless there’s a massive injection of cash into the men’s game, I can’t see the women’s game getting what it would need to go semi-pro.