When did Great Britain last win the Ashes? 1970, right? Wrong! It was actually in 1996 when the Lionesses, captained by Lisa McIntosh, beat Australia by two matches to one in their historic maiden tour of the Southern Hemisphere. McIntosh skippered two further tours and is rightly regarded as one of the greatest players the women’s game has produced.
If you could relive one day from your career, which would it be?
The day we won the Test series in Australia. I had some concussion, so the end of the game was a bit vague for me, but the buzz after the game was brilliant.
When did you start playing?
I’ve always been into sport. I was a proper tomboy. I played football and basketball with the lads because there were no girls teams. When I was 14, I travelled over to Manchester to play for the Man United ladies, but I snapped my ACL when I was 15. I still played, but not to the level I would have liked and I stopped when I was 18. When I was 20 in 1987, I saw an advert in the Halifax Courier about some Rugby League taster sessions at Heath rugby union club. I loved it. It was my sort of sport because I could get stuck in.
What were standards like at the start?
It wasn’t the actual start of the women’s game because Dudley Hill, Guiseley, Hindley and Widnes were already playing. We enjoyed the training, but most played for the social side of things. A few of us were really keen and trained harder. I had to win, that was my mentality. The coaching was often done by someone’s boyfriend, so not a qualified coach. We soon had Lancashire v Yorkshire matches and we even played very short games in between the men’s’ Premiership finals at Old Trafford.
Tell us about the tour to France in 1989.
We went out for a proper tour, to play Test matches. We weren’t aware until we got there that the French girls didn’t play contact, so we just played touch. They knew we were desperate to play some contact, so they arranged for us to play a boys’ under-17’s team. We all got stuck in and it was a good game. Mandy Green was on that tour, and she would have been about 15 or 16. I think only her and myself went on other tours.
How did the opportunity to tour Australia in 1996 come about?
It was planned for about two years. Jackie Sheldon received an invitation to tour Australia in 1994. I’d gone back to playing football with Brighouse, and I went along to trials even though I didn’t have a club. Ian Harris was the coach. I played tag for Drighlington and then I joined Dudley Hill.
How much did you each have to raise to tour?
We each had to raise between £1,000 and £1,500. I was lucky that Calderdale Council sponsored me because I worked for them, but we all still got involved in the fundraising. We did all sorts of fundraising, including a lot of bucket collections. We used to push Becky Stevens to the front and lads would throw loads of money in because of her looks. Even now at the Lions reunions, everyone wants to talk to Becky – nothing changes!
Who were the best players?
Jane Banks in the second row just kept going and going. Brenda Dobek was a brilliant stand-off. Shelly Land was a very good hooker. Our winger Chantel Patrick was nicknamed Chariots because she was like Martin Offiah. Barrow’s Sally Milburn, who we called Flo Jo, was very quick. Julie Cronin from York was excellent too.
How well organised was the tour?
We probably didn’t appreciate how much work went into that tour. We just turned up and trained, but there were a few mishaps. The accommodation in Canberra and Brisbane was like Butlins chalets. We couldn’t even fit on the coach they sent to pick us up from the airport because we had so many bodies and bags. No-one had put any thought into things like this. Our shorts were white and see through! We refused to wear them, and someone had to go and buy 40 new pairs from a sports shop. But things like that made the team bond better. We weren’t pampered. We got an allowance to buy food. There were injuries and homesickness, but one of the highs was Brisbane Broncos really looking after us. We played a match on their training ground and that was like some of our Super League clubs. We ate at their casino and we were given lots of Broncos kits.
We didn’t know what to expect. We were just excited to be in Australia. We’d never seen them play apart from the odd bit of video footage, which wasn’t very clear anyway. We just went to give a good account and not show ourselves up. The best players in England were used to the county games but only a couple of other games were hard fought. The Australians were big, and we weren’t used to their size, but we won the warm-up games quite easily.
You lost the first Test in Canberra but turned the series around.
We lost it by two points, but Karen Burrow put over a conversion which was disallowed because the ref didn’t see it go over. It definitely did though! We levelled the series in Brisbane and then won the decider at Redfern Oval in Sydney. Brenda was fantastic and Chantel scored a couple of tries. It was wonderful to win, although we were hardly treated like today’s football Lionesses. There was no homecoming or anything like that!
Did you ever play with or against Julie Burgess?
I did when I had a little spell with Drighlington, and she was part of the team. She was a lovely person but probably there for the socials and wasn’t really Great Britain standard. I later coached at the national camps through the RFL and I coached with her husband Mark.
What sort of player were you?
I was aggressive, strong and quick. I played halfback in club rugby, but my favourite position was loose forward because I could ball handle and still enjoy the collision. I liked tackling. I tackled to hurt people. It’s a contact sport after all. When I played against Brenda [Dobek], I wanted to rip her head off. You always wanted to take out the best players! When Dudley Hill played Wakefield, it was hard, but we socialised in the bar afterwards, and it was okay. Games with Redhill and Barrow were similar. It wasn’t dirty though – there weren’t may red and yellow cards.
You toured again in 1998, going to New Zealand.
We had to fundraise again, so there was no change there, but it was a very different tour in terms of results. By then, I’d snapped my other ACL, and I didn’t get it fixed because an operation would have put me out of the tour. New Zealand were big, strong and fit. They were mainly rugby union players and they’d been playing for a long time. They were so good with the ball and so quick. They were very athletic and that’s when we knew we had to step things up in terms of training. We lost quite heavily. Trish Hina was unbelievable. She could put a ball across three players to her winger while running at full pace. They were a really nice bunch of girls as well.
Did you experience much racism in rugby?
There were bits on the touchline at a couple of clubs. Men would also shout sexist stuff too like “Get back in the kitchen”, but I was oblivious to it, although we did once have to put in a complaint about one club where there was some horrible sexual stuff being shouted at us.
You clearly improved a lot in the 2000 World Cup, beating Australia twice before losing the final to New Zealand.
We had improved a lot, strength wise. I’d moved to prop by then. The older you get, the further in you move! But I enjoyed it and liked the collision, and I could still ball handle. Gemma Walsh was in the team at 16, and she was very good.
Sixteen is very young for an international player.
When I first played, we had 14-year-olds playing open-age because there were no junior teams. They’d stick them on the wing. I think Kirsty Moroney played open age at 13! Mandy Greenwood and Chantel Patrick had to go straight from playing juniors with boys to playing open-age.
You captained a Lions tour for the third time in 2002. Was it starting to grate by now that you weren’t being supported by the RFL?
Yes, the RFL didn’t do much for us. They didn’t even provide a kit. I don’t think anyone was bothered about us. I think Julia Lee is doing this archive work because we were barely recognised until about 2007 or 2008. Every junior boys’ team would have come before us. In 1996, we were just happy to be there. We didn’t know how much it was going to progress. We lost decent players because of work or family commitments and money reasons. You can’t keep taking time off or raising the money. In 2002, we were in a basic budget hotel again. You were supposed to get three adults in a room, but we physically couldn’t get three of us plus our bags in.
We did okay on the tour. We won the first Test but lost the next two. We were out there as the same time as the Great Britain men. We watched them get beat 64-10 and we didn’t half cop it from the locals! 2002 was my last international tour. I’d started working in a school and couldn’t go on the 2003 tour. I carried on playing club level until I was about 42. I used to say the kids could run and I’d put them through the gaps! Brenda also played into her 40s, and quite a few others did.
You coached a tour to Russia. What was that like?
It was the Under-21s, but we joined up with the England Students’ squad as well. A lot of those kids were 17 or 18 and again we had to raise funds by doing things like climbing mountains. Rugby League in Russia wasn’t very developed. They were just chuffed we were there. We stayed in concrete student accommodation, and you only got hot water between certain hours of the day. That was a shock for some of the girls! In another area, we stayed in a summer camp for young kids whose parents couldn’t afford to send them on holiday. That was basic too, but we were invited to a special banquet in a massive casino, and it was like another world.
Do you still get recognised and do you watch the girls of today?
Only last year I was going for a meal with my gold team, and someone shouted over, “You’re Lisa McIntosh, aren’t you? You had bigger thighs than my dad!” I think it was a compliment anyway!
I watch Bradford women when I can, but not all the time. I watch internationals. I took a minibus of kids to watch the World Cup last time it was here, and I’ll probably do the same this time. The game has come on a lot. Players are spending more time on the training pitch. When I first started, we had lots of different shapes and sizes. Many were big and not so athletic, but we started to change that after 1998. It’s the same in the men’s game. Props aren’t built like Brendan Hill any more.
*Former referee Julia Lee has interviewed many of the 1996 squad in a series which can be found on www.womeninrugbyleague.org.uk called ‘Life with the Lionesses.’
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