Can you introduce yourself and tell us about your current rugby life? 

My name is Emily Rudge. I was born and raised in Warrington, which is a big rugby town in the northwest of England. This is my 20th year of playing rugby. I currently play second row for St. Helens, and I am the captain of the England women’s team. 

Women’s players dedicate so much of our lives to rugby. If you want to be the best, you must train like you are a full-time athlete - but no one is paid in domestic club rugby, so you also have to work a full-time job, which means you have very little time for much else in your life. 

The best times are being with your teammates and knowing you have worked hard as a team to get a win. The worst times are pre-season in January when you feel unfit after eating too much at Christmas. It is absolutely freezing, usually raining, and training consists of so much fitness that seeing people throw up is totally normal!

What has been your rugby journey?

I first started playing rugby at primary school aged 10, when I was asked to go along to a tag rugby tournament so the school could enter a ‘mixed team'. I think they expected me to just stand on the wing and let the boys do all the work, but I loved it and ended up getting stuck into it. I won a medal for the best girl in the tournament and after that I was hooked. I soon joined a local boys’ team Woolston Rovers and never looked back. 

However, after Under 11s I had to go and play for a girls’ team, as I was too old to play in an all-boys team. Unfortunately, the closest girls’ team was in Rochdale, about 45 minutes away. My dad had to take me to training, wait, and then take me back twice a week, with games on the weekend. He did that for a year and then decided he would set up a girls’ rugby team in Warrington! 

Luckily, we had started playing rugby in my high school. Our school’s team made up the Warrington girls’ team every weekend. We were really successful and that is also how Jodie Cunningham (St. Helen’s captain and fellow England player) first started playing rugby. Her dad helped my dad run the team and now our dads are also best friends (they met through us playing rugby). 

After a trial for Lancashire at 16, I played some games for them and got selected in the England squad which toured Australia for the 2008 World Cup. It was an unbelievable experience, and I earned my first cap whilst on that tour. I played in a game against Australia the day before my 17th birthday.  

I played for Warrington Women from 16, before they merged with Thatto Heath (they did not have a full open age women’s team, but they had better training facilities and support) so our team moved and became Thatto Heath Women. In 2018 we became St. Helen’s Women, the Super League started in 2019, and I played in the first ever game for the club.

What did you try to show with the photos? Was there any wider meaning with any of the photos?

Most of the photos show my teammates from St. Helen’s and England, usually at training or in the gym during our sessions. I tried to give a bit of an insight into what goes on behind the scenes at our teams, including things that people would not usually see. There are also photos of England Women during our mid-season international camps when we played Wales and France in June and July 2022.

One photo in the changing grooms shows Amy Hardcastle talking to Dani Bush. Dani looks quite nervous, and Amy is giving her a little pep talk before the game as they play next to each other on the pitch. 

I also showed my mum, my boyfriend and our dog. My mum and boyfriend are at every one of my games, but this was the first game Poppy (the dog) has attended. To me it really shows the growth of the women’s game. In previous years, all our games would be played at local parks and community clubs, and you would always see dogs knocking about or running on the pitch! 

Now all games are played in stadiums, and it is so much more professional. Poppy (who is 2 years old) has never been allowed to come. This new 9s tournament, which took place at Victoria Park in Warrington, is probably the only opportunity she will ever get to attend a game. 

What role does rugby league play in your community and country?

Rugby league brings people together. It gives young players a safe outlet to let out some aggression and be physically competitive. It can give people a purpose in their life and give them lots of amazing opportunities. 

Warrington is a huge rugby league town. A lot of the people in Warrington live for rugby league. They play it, they watch it, they like supporting the different teams. It brings a lot of people together socially and is at the heart of many different conversations. Warrington does not really have a great football team to follow but the rugby team has been really successful in previous years, so that draws in a lot more fans too. 

I also think that rugby league is one of the most inclusive sports in the world. There are all different leagues for everyone to get involved - for men, women, boys, girls. Anyone with a physical disability can play for a PDRL team and anyone with a learning difficulty can play for an LDRL team. There is also wheelchair rugby league which is for everyone, both disabled and able-bodied people. There is even a masters rugby league (over players over 40) and if you do not like the contact aspect of the sport, there is tag rugby league too! 

What does rugby league mean to you? 

Rugby league means everything to me! I want to continue to play rugby league and hopefully make it to another World Cup (which would be my 5th!) Unfortunately, you cannot play rugby league forever, so I will make the most of it whilst I still can. 

As the game grows, the opportunities grow too. Women can now play for a Super League club which is something you could not do 5 years ago. Rugby league has given me so many amazing opportunities that I would have never received without being part of the sport. I will always be grateful for the positive impact rugby league has had on my life. 

Recently I was presented with a shirt for the France game, where I officially became the most capped England women’s player. Craig Richards (England Women’s Head Coach) arranged for my mum and dad to surprise me and present me with the shirt. It was a really special moment for us all.

What would you like to see change in women's rugby league after the RLWC? 

I would really like women’s players to get paid in domestic club rugby league. That is what women deserve. All the players train like full-time athletes but also need to hold down a full-time job. It is so hard to be one of the best players in the world when you have all of that to contend with. It means that other things like spending time with friends and family have to be sacrificed. That is definitely the change I want to see. 

There are big changes happening every year in women’s rugby league, which makes it a really exciting sport to be a part of. Next year will be the first time ever that the Women’s Challenge Cup will be played at Wembley! I think this is such an amazing opportunity for women and means that our sport is becoming more in line with the men’s game. 

What are the opportunities for female players in England?

The standard of the women’s game has massively improved in recent years. There are now a lot more girls playing and better coaching and support at each club. This is now creating better players on the pitch. The Women’s Super League is a lot more competitive - in 2022 season three different teams all won trophies. Every game has been competitive between those three teams, and this has not been the case in previous years. Hopefully this will help us going into the World Cup! 

Off the field, there has been a massive increase in promotion of the women’s game on social media and TV. Women are now actually getting recognised as rugby league players when out in public. Recently I was stopped in a shop and asked for a photo. I was just in my normal clothes and found it crazy that someone recognised me, and they actually wanted a photo. This has never happened to me, and it all comes from how much more visible the women’s game is now. 

Do you have a message for the next generation of young female players?

Work hard and don’t give up. If you want to play for England in the future, then don’t shy away from a challenge! When things start to get tough that is the breaking point for most people. If you can keep pushing on you will achieve great things.

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