St Helens’ treble winners on dominant season, World Cup hopes and equality battles

They swept the board in 2021, but perhaps the most impressive accomplishment of the St Helens team was the role they played in raising the ever-increasing profile of Women’s Rugby League.

After the pandemic curtailed the 2020 season, this year has felt like a breakthrough for the female version of the sport.

The Challenge Cup Final was the first women’s match ever shown by the BBC, and Saints produced a magnificent performance in beating a spirited York side. The wider public was finally introduced to the talents of that world-class triumvirate Jodie Cunningham, Emily Rudge and Amy Hardcastle, and they couldn’t have failed to be enthralled as Cunningham pulled the strings and Rudge and Hardcastle ran riot on the fringes. With those three continuing to shine, Saints went on to win the League Leaders’ Shield and then the Grand Final.

World Cup Countdown

But there is far more to this magnificent team than their three galacticos. Numerous players left an indelible mark on the 2021 campaign. Two in particular are at their peak and are counting down the days to the World Cup.

Chantelle Crowl was outstanding in the Challenge Cup Final and was named player of the match in the Grand Final. This tall Alex Walmsley-like enforcer dominates the middle of the field. Her appetite for the ball is insatiable. Nothing gets past her, and her offload has become one of the team’s most potent attacking weapons. For someone who regularly plays 80 minutes, it might appear contradictory to call her an impact player, but the impact she has on games grows by the week. She has left her contemporary frontrowers behind and is the best prop in the British game.

Carrie Roberts is a textbook centre whom any coach would want kids to study. She scores tries, creates them, and prevents them at the other end. She has the perfect physique for a centre and is as fit and strong as anybody in the game. Along with Hardcastle, she is the ideal player to oppose the formidable Australian centres, Isabelle Kelly and Jessica Sergis, the only winners thus far of the Women’s Golden Boot, when the World Cup goes ahead next year. She was a revelation in her debut season.

Roberts and Crowl share many of the qualities that have got them here. Both are boxers. Roberts is a sergeant in the Royal Electrical & Mechanical Engineers. Crowl’s astonishing response to a sickening racist incident during a match at Leeds a couple of years ago displays a deeply impressive character. Both players have fascinating stories to tell.

From the Army to St Helens

“My rugby life started in the Army,” says Roberts.

“I was in the rest room, chilling out, and was asked to play a game of rugby union. I enjoyed the camaraderie and was then asked to play Rugby League for the Army in 2015. When I came home for weekends, I looked for a team in St Helens and went to Thatto Heath. We won the Challenge Cup and on the back of that, I played two Tests for England in France.

“There wasn’t much going on with the Rugby League programme then, so I played for Saracens and Bristol and quit rugby altogether in 2017,” the 31-year-old continues.

“I took up boxing. Then I got a call from the Army Rugby League coach, asking me to play for them against Huddersfield in Aldershot.

“I really enjoyed it. We entered the Challenge Cup and won the Shield in 2019. I trained with England and that was a major reason for me sticking with Rugby League. My work supports me and has based me further up north. I’m on an Elite Sports Programme, meaning I can focus entirely on St Helens and England until the World Cup. After that, I could be based in Catterick, which might mean a move to a closer club, or I could be based down south and not near any club.”

Born in Toronto

Crowl was born in Toronto 28 years ago to a Jamaican father and an English mother. She was raised in Widnes and joined St Helens when the Women’s Super League was created in 2018.

“I came over from Canada and there wasn’t much basketball or baseball around, so I got into a boys’ Rugby League team at eight,” she says.

“At 11, I had to play for a girls’ team, and I went to Moorfield Angels in Widnes, and also played for West Bank, Crosfields and Thatto Heath.”

Roberts boxed at the England National Development Championships, winning a silver medal. Crowl admits to not being quite at that level but still trains.

“Maybe Carrie and I should do a charity fight together,” she laughs.

“I’ve had some charity ones, one normal fight and then club fights. The cardio is unreal, and it keeps you very fit. But weight can be a tricky issue. In rugby, you need weight on, but you need to be fit as well. In boxing, you have to be stripped to the muscle. It’s hard to mix them both.”

Challenge Cup Highlight

On a tremendous, trophy-laden season, Crowl chooses the Challenge Cup win as the highlight, despite the season-ending injury suffered by Faye Gaskin.

“It was the first trophy,” she points out.

“We were so close in 2019 but lost in the semi-finals in both trophies, so to win the Cup was fantastic. To be on the BBC was great and we got loads of comments on social media saying it was the first time they’d watched a women’s game. Many say it’s more entertaining than the men’s game.

“Faye’s injury was a terrible moment for us all,” sympathises Crowl.

“She’s a world-class six. She’s got so much skill and speed. We’re both from Widnes and go way back. It’s been hard for her to handle not being on the pitch, but she gives us loads of support. She’s walking a bit better now. We have the depth to fill the role and she’s been giving Zoe Harris lots of good advice.

“Winning things like player of the match in the Grand Final is nice. We all work our butts off, but it’s still nice to be chosen for something like that. Some of us can be worriers and things like that help you believe.”

Crowl signed for Saints as a backrower but was outstanding throughout 2021 at prop.

“I came in as a second row, then I played loose forward, and 13 is still my squad number,” she says.

“This year was my first as prop and I really enjoyed it. I was worried about the lack of involvement compared to back row, but I’ve found my feet. You play with your hands at loose forward, but at prop you have learn when to offload. Loose forward is still my favourite position, then prop.”

Centre partnership

Two of Crowl’s fellow pack members are her club captain Cunningham and England skipper Rudge, two of the game’s stand-out players.

“I’ve played with Rudgey and Jodie for years now,” says Crowl.

“I played against them in girls’ festivals. They were fit, strong and had a lot more skill than other girls. They were an inspiration to me at Thatto Heath. They are great captains, and they communicate so well. I’m Rudgey’s left prop, and she constantly talks to me, especially if I’m a bit knackered.”

Hardcastle tends to be the headline grabber in the backs, and it is likely she and Roberts will be the England centres next year.

“She’s a special player to me,” says Roberts.

“We both came to Saints at the same time, so she could have seen me as competition, but she’s always had my back. She’s my go-to person and a fantastic player. She has a daughter, and she saves lives every day. She’s the ultimate pro and a big softie at heart.

“We do actually talk about the Australian centres. We’ve watched them. Amy has played against them before and I haven’t, but whatever accolades they have, they have two arms, two legs and they’ll go to ground if you tackle them. We’re putting no one on a pedestal.”

World Cup anticipation

Crowl is also buzzing about the World Cup. She is a more experienced international, having toured Australia and Papua New Guinea. She also qualifies for two other nations.

“I was asked to play for Canada,” she says, “and still get emails about trials. I want to stay with England for as long as possible, but if that comes to an end, then I’d consider playing for Canada or Jamaica if the chance arises.

“The trip to Papua New Guinea in 2019 was such an eye-opener. We were the first women’s team to travel there. It was scary but also wonderful. Goroka was my main memory. The locals would make us bilums – traditional, hand-woven bags that you wear around the neck. I came home with about 15!

“Kids in schools would be crying, wanting to hold our hands just because we played rugby. They looked at us like we were heroes and it was the best feeing ever. We gave away kit, which was nice. I played in the first game, which we won, but not the second [which England lost].

“I can’t wait for the World Cup. I’m familiar with some of the players, but it’ll be five years in between games against Australia; so many players will have changed on both sides. Australia and New Zealand will be physical with a lot of skill, whoever plays for them. We don’t know much about Brazil, but I’m excited because it’s a new team.”

What social life?

Unlike in the men’s professional game, female players aren’t paid. And there isn’t the social life of the amateur game. It looks like the worst of both worlds. Roberts joined St Helens for the 2020 season, which fell victim to Covid-19, so 2021 was her debut year. Rather than reflect on the glories, she is keen to emphasise the hard work and sacrifices that are necessary to maintain standards, walking us through a typical week.

“If we play Sunday, Monday is about rest and recovery,” she says.

“We train on Tuesday but nothing too heavy – it’s about looking to correct a few things. We’re back in the gym doing conditioning work on Wednesdays. Thursday is all about the team we’re up against, and we do video sessions on all the teams. Friday is a light session if we play Saturday or more intense if it’s on Sunday.

“Bear in mind, many of the girls work full time, and they still fit all that in. There’s not time for much of a life! We don’t really drink. We had a small celebration after the Grand Final, but there was a Test match two weeks later and many of our players were involved (although not Roberts, who had tested positive for Covid). The girls make a lot of sacrifices.

“We’re all given personal programmes as well. A lot of mine are skill-based, as I was lacking a bit there. Pre-season is the hardest, with a lot of running. Keeping the momentum going during the season can be hard too. Last season was congested and that was mentally tough.”


For Crowl, the requisite sacrifices will be harder than usual next year as she marries her partner, Annie.

“Carrie’s right,” she says, “we have to stay sober during the season and make sacrifices. We have three nights out in November before pre-season. That’s the extent of our social lives in the year.

“There are family sacrifices too. I’m getting married in June, but I’ll have one day off maximum. The wedding is on a Thursday, and I’ll have to be bold and ask for that Saturday off. It’s a training day. But there’ll be no honeymoon and holidays after it, so it’s hard for Annie.”
York player Kelsey Gentles will be Crowl’s maid of honour.

“She’s an absolutely awesome girl, but we didn’t really like each other at first,” Crowl admits. “Then we got on a plane to go to the World 9s and just gelled like sisters. I don’t go a day without texting her.”

And will Crowl change her name when she ties the knot? “No, Annie’s going to change hers. As the song goes, ‘There’s only one Channy Crowl,’ so I don’t want to spoil that!”

While there are no openly gay players currently in the men’s Super League, Crowl is one of many LGBT+ players in the female game.

“I think it’s totally different to the men’s game,” she says.

“For men, it’s harder, but there are young and older women who aren’t afraid to come out and speak about it. I feel more than comfortable around all the girls at our club. Whether straight, bi or gay, everyone has each other’s backs.

“Before my mum knew, I told my best friend and a different friend at one of the clubs after training. I instantly felt comfortable. And I now see some of the younger players wanting to get involved when it’s being discussed. They’re listening and might not be willing to join in the conversation yet, but it’s a good and safe environment to be in.

Doing the Double

“You can’t tell me there haven’t been more gay or bisexual players in the men’s game than those who have come out. I know it’s no one else’s business, but I know from experience that you don’t feel comfortable until you have come out. In years to come it’ll all change, but I think it’s still hard for them now. I can only speak of St Helens, but the men’s team would be fine with a gay player, but what about the crowd? And then there’s football. There have been so many incidents with racism in football recently, that I imagine it would be very hard for a footballer to come out even if his team-mates were all great about it. Football doesn’t seem like a welcoming environment right now.”

It’s not just the Saints women basking in silverware right now. The men’s team also won league and cup to complete a rare club double. Watchers of both teams might find it irresistible to draw comparisons between individual players. Crowl is delighted to hear her playing style is reminiscent of Walmsley’s.

“I love hearing that!” she says.

“I look at Alex’s game and see what I can use. I spoke to him at the presentation night and told him I want to be the next Alex Walmsley. I even sit in his box when we use the home dressing room.”

As the profile of the women’s game rises sharply, it is interesting to hear the thoughts of Roberts on its potential and whether it could one day become semi-professional.

“People do come up and say hello and it’s nice to get recognition,” says Roberts.

“It’s important to keep growing because there’s so much potential for the women’s game to become a brand of its own. I can see the game being semi-professional one day. It just needs time and exposure. It’s so much bigger than it was when I first played for England. I’ve seen the growth in rugby union, and eventually we will get there. More and more girls are signing up and so many are saying, ‘I want to be like you when I grow up’. I looked up to Kelly Holmes – she was a soldier, an athlete and an Olympian. Now, girls can look up to the likes of Jodie Cunningham and their parents really like it too.”

Roberts also is keen to praise the Saints coach, Derek Hardman.

“Dec is a really good coach,” she says.

“He’s firm and fair and honest. You know where you stand even if it’s something you don’t want to hear. He knows it isn’t about individuals and he recognises the qualities of those who haven’t even pulled on a shirt. He doesn’t measure success by trophies – if the girls are enjoying themselves, especially with not being paid, then that’s great. He’s a good person to talk to and he’s been my rock through some hard times.”

Taking the knee

Crowl has numerous tattoos detailing her rugby and boxing achievements. Last year she added to her left arm a tattoo of a gorilla running with a rugby ball. The story behind it is quite remarkable.

“Basically, what happened was someone shouted in front of my mum, ‘Get that gorilla off the field!’ with reference to me at a game at Leeds,” she recalls.

“I decided to own the situation rather than let it affect me. It inspired me to believe in myself more and I got a tattoo of a gorilla carrying a rugby ball. I mean, what’s not to like? Gorillas are fine-looking animals and they’re big and strong, which is fine by me. The one I have is running with a ball. Hopefully he’s running at the racist that abused me.

“The atmosphere at women’s games is normally nice, but crowds are increasing and some of the spectators are people who have got there early for the men’s game afterwards. Maybe that’s where some of the unpleasant stuff comes from, but I’m not sure.

“We all support the taking of the knee. My squad asked me what I wanted us to do and how to do it, so we raise the arm as well. They all had my back. A lot of other teams do it, although sometimes there are one or two players among our opponents who don’t kneel, but people have different opinions.”

“We spoke about it as a group,” adds Roberts.

“We agreed on what we’re going to do. My attitude was, ‘Why wouldn’t you do it?’”

And what of the future? As with most Rugby League players, the focus is short term.

“Next year I want to be fitter, stronger and faster,” says Crowl.

“We want to keep hold of the three trophies. And then there’s the World Cup. My main ambition is to get into the team and then help us become world champions.”

“We’re aiming to win the World Cup, absolutely,” Roberts agrees.

“There’s so much drive. I genuinely believe we can do it. There might be doubters, but we are very confident.”

If the recent standards reached by St Helens are any guide, then there is a very realistic possibility of that happening.

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