International Women’s Day: Woman of Steel Jodie Cunningham on breaking the bias in her rugby league career

Jodie Cunningham enjoyed a stellar 2021 season which saw her captain St Helens to an unprecedented domestic treble, but the England international’s journey to the top has seen her have to overcome scepticism and sexism

Last Updated: 08/03/22 12:14am


Jodie Cunningham has become one of the stars of the Women’s Super League

Jodie Cunningham spends every day working to inspire the next generation of female rugby league players, but the England international has long been a role model for women and girls in the sport prior to becoming the RFL’s national women’s and girls’ development manager.

Cunningham is one of the biggest icons of the Betfred Women’s Super League, a profile which has been raised even higher on the back of skippering St Helens to an unprecedented clean sweep of domestic honours in 2021, not to mention being an ambassador for this year’s postponed Rugby League World Cup.

But although the 31-year-old has risen to the top of her sport from her childhood playing in Warrington and becoming an inspirational figure for many, it has not been an easy route. Along with all the hard work she has put in, Cunningham has had to overcome scepticism and sexism, although that has only hardened her resolve.

“I feel like from being a little girl and being really small playing rugby league, I’ve always been having to bang the drum about women’s and girls’ rugby league,” Cunningham told Sky Sports.

“I was always fighting a battle to prove how good it was, prove women and girls can play rugby league, how strong we are and how it’s worth investing in and worth coming down and watching.

“So, every time someone makes a comment like that, every time someone says ‘is it touch rugby league?’ or every time someone says ‘girls can’t tackle’, ‘do you get hurt?’, ‘do you all go in the shower together?’ – just the most ridiculous questions which would never get asked to a male sportsperson – for me I just think ‘every time you do that I’m going to prove how brilliant this sport is, I’m going to prove how powerful the women in this game are and I’m going to get myself to the top level’.

“I feel so fortunate, the last couple of years we have got to that top level and people are talking to me about how brilliant that try was in the Grand Final, how impressed they are with St Helens and whether they can be brilliant again this year. They’re talking about the rugby now and, for me, that shows the shift in momentum.”

England international and 2021 Woman of Steel Jodie Cunningham broke from inside her own half for a stunning try in St Helens' Women's Super League Grand Final win over Leeds Rhinos

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England international and 2021 Woman of Steel Jodie Cunningham broke from inside her own half for a stunning try in St Helens’ Women’s Super League Grand Final win over Leeds Rhinos

England international and 2021 Woman of Steel Jodie Cunningham broke from inside her own half for a stunning try in St Helens’ Women’s Super League Grand Final win over Leeds Rhinos

Cunningham has had to overcome more subtle forms of discrimination too, finding her sporting ambitions being dismissed by some as little more than a hobby because players in the Women’s Super League are still not paid to play.

However, no one should be in any doubt. The reigning Woman of Steel and her club and international team-mates are very much elite-level athletes, with the often unseen hours of training they put in perfecting their skills and reaching the peak of physical fitness around their day jobs.

“I think for me, a lot of it is quite subtle,” Cunningham said. “It’s not necessarily in your face. Previous workplaces where I tell them about my rugby and my requirements, and that I might need some time off to play in a World Cup and it’s described as a hobby.

“The time and everything I’ve done to get where I am in my sport, calling it a hobby to me is disrespectful. Just because we’re not paid to play the sport, doesn’t take away from what the women in the game do at the top level.

“Every time someone says ‘is it touch rugby league?’ or every time someone says ‘girls can’t tackle’, ‘do you get hurt?’, ‘do you all go in the shower together?’…I just think ‘every time you do that I’m going to prove how brilliant this sport is, I’m going to prove how powerful the women in this game are and I’m going to get myself to the top level’.”

Jodie Cunningham

“So, it’s those little things to me that you have to accept and try to understand and educate people to understand it’s not acceptable to talk about it being a hobby for someone at the top level of a sport.”

But despite those experiences, Cunningham believes there are plenty of signs of progress for women and girls playing rugby league, and this year’s International Women’s Day offers another opportunity to drive home those messages.

This year’s theme of ‘Break The Bias’ is one which resonates with her particularly as well, and as much in life off the rugby field as well as on it.

“I think it means something different to everyone and, for me, ‘Break The Bias’ is about shifting momentum from women being underdogs and people doubting women’s ability in all different ways to us feeling empowered and respecting what we do and what we bring to the table,” Cunningham said.

“That might be on the rugby field, that might be in an office – it doesn’t matter where it is, but it’s that shift of women believing in ourselves and the men around us believing in us as well.

“I really feel like we’re finding that shift now and it’s days like International Women’s Day which really bring light to that and make everyone question and think about how far it’s come.”



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