Jodie Cunningham on choosing rugby over medicine
"You only get so many opportunities to represent your country, it doesn't come around all the time," says St Helens Ladies and England star
By Sky Sports Rugby League
Last Updated: 08/03/19 8:21am
As part of our celebration of International Women's Day, we spoke to St Helens co-captain Jodie Cunningham ahead of her appearance as our studio guest for Wigan's game against Huddersfield on Friday night, live on Sky Sports.
It was announced on Friday that Cunningham's side will face defending champions Wigan in their first outing of the 2019 campaign, a game in which St Helens will be looking to claim revenge.
Saints lost to Wigan three times last year; twice in the regular season and again in the semi-final, with Wigan going on to beat Leeds in the Grand Final.
"We had three losses to Wigan, which as a Saints player hurts a lot," Cunningham told Sky Sports. "Especially the semi-final - that was a tough one to take.
"We've got a new coach this season in Derek Hardman, and we've focussed a lot on core skills because that let us down. We were a bit sloppy around the ruck last year and that's where Wigan were really strong and took advantage of us.
"So we've been working really hard at the basics and hoping that once the seasons starts we're ready to go."
This year, Cunningham will be leading the team alongside Tara Jones, a role she says she was surprised to get, but one she is comfortable taking on.
"I'm really proud [to be named co-captain]. It was a shock really but I'm really glad to take up the role. With my injury last year I was ruled out of any sort of leadership role, but it's definitely something that I like to take on board.
"I've been vice-captain of England and I've led teams before so it's something I'm used to and I'm relishing the opportunity."
With new coach Hardman providing a fresh perspective, Cunningham says there is an eagerness within the squad to get the season started.
"The women's season is shorter than the men's because we've got less teams in our league. It's an advantage and a disadvantage; it's good because we've had a long time together to get fit and work on the basics, but I feel like I'm chomping at the bit now, ready to go.
"We've got a pre-season run-out on the 17th of March against Wakefield. They've just come up to the Women's Super League, so that will be a good test for us to see where we're at and see how pre-season's been going for us - and hopefully give us some confidence going into the first official game of the season."
The 27-year-old has been keeping busy off the field in the meantime, working for the 2021 Rugby League World Cup in an ambassadorial capacity.
"I started working for the World Cup full time in January," said Cunningham. "I'm the women's ambassador and also work on the legacy side of the programme which is the InspirationALL programme. It's something I'm absolutely loving at the minute, I'm relishing every opportunity that I get.
"It's brilliant that we can use the brand of the World Cup and the excitement of the World Cup in England to really push the women's game and promote it even more.
"Hopefully there's a lot of excitement around the women's game because we've got games at Anfield, Headingley, the final at Old Trafford - really exciting venues that most of the women would have never played at before."
Cunningham says in her early days playing rugby league there was a lack of awareness around the women's game.
"When I first started playing and I fell in love with the sport, I didn't know any women's players and I didn't even know there was an England international side.
"Emily Rudge and I played together all through school and all through our club and are now still play together at St Helens. A coach said to us early on 'If you two stick at it, you might play for England one day'.
"We both went on to do that which is brilliant, but until he said that I had no idea who the women in the game were and who the best players were - and there really was some amazing athletes that represented England and Great Britain that didn't necessarily get the publicity that we're getting now.
"So it's nice that young girls can see that there's a pathway there that they can follow, and there's the potential that one day they can play for England and represent their country, which is the proudest thing that I've ever done personally."
Cunningham says despite a lack of awareness around the women's game, it did not take her long to realise rugby league was the sport she wanted to play.
"I was 12 when I started. Emily had played with the boys when she was younger, so when we went to high school she really pushed for us to get a girls team. I tried it out for the first time and literally fell in love with it and have not looked back since.
"I'm really glad I took it up. I'd always been sporty and tried all different sports, but never really found that one that I wanted to commit all my time to, and then rugby league… that was it, I fell in love!"
When Cunningham was 17, her international ambitions were becoming a reality, and it forced her to choose between sport and her dream career.
"Going through school my plan was to go and do medicine and be a doctor, but when I was applying for university I'd just been selected for the England squad.
"I was told 'medicine is too much of an ask with all your rugby commitments, you have to make a choice'.
"I wasn't really ready at that point, I wanted to commit and see how far I could go with England. So I did biomedical science as a course with the idea of maybe going onto medicine afterwards.
"You only get so many opportunities to represent your country, it doesn't come around all the time. I knew that if I wanted to go back and do medicine that's always an option I could look at afterwards, but for me it was about the sport I loved, and what made me happy was rugby league - and if I could try and do as well as I could in that sport, that's something that I really wanted to do."
Cunningham says the decision was vindicated when she took the field for her country for the first time.
"When I got selected in the 2013 World Cup, it was while I was at university. When you pull on that shirt and you sing the national anthem you sort of realise that all your hard work has paid off and it's a really special feeling.
"You never get used to that feeling because it really is incredible, and I just hope I've got a few more opportunities to do that in my career."
There is no time to dwell on her international career, though, with her work commitments currently taking up so much of her time.
"People have been saying 'It's over two years until the World Cup, you must have nothing to do!' but everybody's mad busy. We recently announced the host venues so that was quite a big event for us.
"Now it's about building the profile of the World Cup. I work on the legacy side of the tournament, that involves all different aspects including a health programme that we want to deliver with a focus on mental health in rugby league.
"There's a lot of great work being done by the rugby league community and foundations around mental health, and we want to promote that and hopefully grow that even more."
Cunningham says she is proud to be a part of a bigger picture that has helped to grow rugby league, and says the buy-in from the established clubs has played a major role in that development.
"Rugby league is a really inclusive sport. We see that with the RDRL (Learning Disability Rugby League) and the PDRL (Physical Disability Rugby League) - all the different versions of rugby league that are around to make sure that everyone can enjoy the sport.
"As soon as the Women's Super League started to come about, a lot of the clubs were interested and wanted to get behind that.
"It's felt for me that in the last 12 months rugby league for women has grown more than it has in the last 12 years because everyone's really getting behind it and backing it as a sport.
"The Super League clubs getting behind the women's game has had a big push; we need more of that because at the end of the day it's the men's teams that young girls go and watch and have seasons tickets for when they're kids.
"They look up to those players and think 'Wow, I'd love to play for Warrington, I'd love to play for Wigan or St Helens'. Now they have the opportunity to represent the women for those clubs, which is brilliant for our sport.
"If the clubs can get behind it even more and push that, as well as the fantastic opportunities that are coming around as part of the World Cup, we should then see an influx of young girls wanting to play - and the level of participation along with the quality of the game will grow even more."
See Jodie Cunningham in the studio for Wigan's clash with Huddersfield, live on Sky Sports Arena from 7pm on Friday