The remarkable stories behind St Helens’ Women’s Challenge Cup winners

St Helens were in imperious form at Wembley as they lifted their fourth successive Challenge Cup with a comprehensive 22-0 victory over Leeds Rhinos.

YOU’RE the first, the last, my everything.

They might be some of Barry White’s most famous lyrics, but as individual statements they sum up three of St Helens’ winning stars as they claimed a fourth successive Challenge Cup title with a 22-0 win over Leeds Rhinos.

First – Leah Burke – making her debut at Wembley after being struck down with a season-ending ACL injury just months before last year’s final.

Last – Faye Gaskin – playing her final Challenge Cup game after confirming her retirement at the end of this year.

Everything – Phoebe Hook – a rare breed of player who can celebrate two Wembley appearances, two winners medals and two tries – what more can she achieve in her Challenge Cup career.

“I’m not sure it can really get better than that,” said Hook, who has only been playing rugby league since joining St Helens ahead of last season.

“Getting over the line just adds even more excitement to a day like this.

“I’m only about 18 months into my rugby league career so I can’t quite believe where I am and what I have done so far. I need to keep pinching myself at times.

“But that is all credit to the girls. I have come in and am surrounded by great players so success is bound to happen, because everyone here is so amazing.

“I feel really privileged to be a part of this group.

“Girls like Jodie (Cunningham), Emily (Rudge) and Faye (Gaskin) have been so influential for me. Even if they don’t realise they are doing it, just being around those leaders and amazing players that I can look up to and learn from, is so important for any player, not just young players and new players.

“It’s daunting to think that players like myself and this younger generation of players will be the ones stepping into their roles when they retire. They have been around for so long, so to think of a time when they will be leaving is scary, but in the young players that are coming through now, we have players that can step up. 

“There is no doubt that we can continue to win things when that happens. We have a lot of talent in the squad and it’s exciting to see where this squad can go from here.”

Hook was one of four try scorers on the day, with Gaskin, Luci McColm, and Chantelle Crowl also crossing. And while their attack has been been a strong point for them all season, it has been their defence and willingness to work for each other that has perhaps been most impressive.

Throughout this season’s Challenge Cup campaign, Saints conceded just one try – that came in the 58-6 win over Warrington. The only other points they conceded was a penalty goal in the semi-final against York.

“I’m just really proud of the girls. From minute one I don’t think any of us felt like we weren’t going to win today,” added Hook.

“The way we had been performing in the weeks leading up to the final, it felt like no team can beat us.

“We know that defence is really important in any game and it is something we’ve really cracked down on this year. We’re proving now that the work we’ve done on that is paying off.

“But it is also that want to get up, protect your mate and work hard for the person next to you. That’s a real strength for us. We’re a really close group and it’s about your mates out there, not individuals.”

In last season’s final, Hook was on the opposite wing to now York Valkyrie star Eboni Partington, while fellow England international Burke was forced to watch on from the coaches box alongside Matty Smith.

She made a vow to herself that day, that she would come back stronger from her injury and put herself firmly in contention to play at Wembley in 2024. 

The final fell three days short of a year on from Burke suffering the injury in a league game against Wigan, and after so much build up to her Wembley debut, she came off the pitch with a smile on her face, knowing the whole day had lived up to her expectations.

“Everyone was just telling me to go out there and enjoy the occasion,” said Burke, who was quick to thank some of her team mates for keeping her calm as the big day approached.

“There is so much going on in the build up to a game like this that you can sometimes forget to do that. But when I went out there for the warm ups before the game it made everything feel really real.

“Most of the girls played here last year, I think there was five of us out there that weren’t involved, and being able to lean on those that had played here before was massive. 

“They knew what to expect, what it feels like out there so using them, and having a captain like Jodie, has been incredible. You couldn’t ask for a better captain and if you ever need reassurance she’s there with that.

“Finally being out there definitely lived up to expectations and it is up there at the top of the list of my career highlights so far.”

While the game marked a debut appearance at Wembley for Burke, Erin and Darcy Stott, Beri Salihi and Georgia Sutherland, it signalled the end of Faye Gaskin’s Challenge Cup journey. But what a journey it has been.

After previously winning titles with Thatto Heath, few will forget when the now 32-year-old was left in agony after suffering a potentially career-ending knee injury while celebrating Danielle Bush’s opening try in the 2021 final against York. But two years later, she was back and her field goal with less than a minute on the clock of last year’s semi-final against the same opposition set up that historic first trip to Wembley.

As much as she’d now perhaps like to aim for a third success at the national stadium, Gaskin has confirmed the time is right to hang up her boots and embark on a new journey with partner Sian.

“For me the time is right to call it a day,” said Gaskin, who is now aiming for some more success before calling time on her career.

“Me and my partner have decided to start our IVF journey in October, so this was always going to be my last-ever Challenge Cup game. 

“It’s not going to be an easy journey, but I have taken a lot of strength and resilience from this sport that will carry into that next step.

“It was emotional stood up there in the Royal Box looking down knowing that was it. I’ve still got a few months left of the season so it’s not over yet and I want to go out having won the treble.

“Last year, after we’d won here and made history at Wembley, the next week we were playing at Huddersfield and there was dog poo on the pitch so it was a bit of an anti climax. But this year we’ve brought in Ash (Seddon – Psychologist) who’s been working with us and Suzanne Littler in player welfare, so we’re in a stronger position mentally now to back it up this year.

“It’s still so early in the season, so we can really build on this 

“We’ve lost some players to Leeds and York this year and I think a few people might have written us off this season because of that. But we’re not ready to lie down and take that, we’re on for some more silverware.

“And we’re probably in a better head space to do that.”

First published in Rugby League World magazine, Issue 498 (July 2024)

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