England star Jodie Cunningham visits Ashton Bears as the club receives National Lottery funding to increase female participation

England star Jodie Cunningham visited Ashton Bears for a training session to celebrate the growth of women’s rugby league.

By Amos Wynn
Tuesday, 21st June 2022, 2:00 pm

The club has been awarded £24,176 of National Lottery RLWC2021 CreatedBy funding, which will go towards upgrading facilities and creating two new pitches to increase playing capacity and female participation.

Cunningham praised the work of Ashton and the way they have been able to grow the women and girls section since it was first set up in 2017 with only a handful of players.

She said: “It’s brilliant to have 60 to 70 girls all training at the same time, just sort of celebrating how much the women’s game has grown as a whole, and particularly at this club.

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Jodie Cunningham paid a visit to Ashton Bears (Photo by Nathan Stirk/Getty Images for The National Lottery)

“Not too long ago they started off with their very first team, and year on year they’ve built on it with different age groups.

“I’ve been put through my paces by the U16s team, so I can see the talent that they’ve got here. The girls are really keen and really enjoying themselves, with a smile on their faces.

“As a Warrington girl who plays for Saints, I’ve been welcomed really well, although I was a bit scared. The girls have all been brilliant.

“It’s really exciting to celebrate all of the amazing work being done at the club.

Jodie Cunningham took part in a training session at Ashton Bears (Photo by Nathan Stirk/Getty Images for The National Lottery)

“It’s a million miles away from what it was like when I was the age of these girls, there weren't the opportunities to play or many clubs around.

“Many would’ve been lost to the game because of the amount of travel and not being able to get to places, so it’s brilliant to see there’s so many facilities here, with lots of different age groups.

“It’s so important that we can provide these opportunities, and that there are pathways and role models for the girls to get involved and enjoy it.

“Hopefully they can go on and succeed, becoming future Women’s Super League and England stars. The potential for them is endless.

“The talent is ridiculous, I’m concerned now for my place, I’m terrified I might lose my shirt. That is part and parcel of the great work being done.

“There are more and more girls to play with, and because they are picking up the ball at a young age and have a great pathway with so many opportunities, the quality is remarkable.

“This legacy is amazing and I can only imagine where it will go in the next few years.

“I’m really passionate about growing it across all of the North West, and it is really important to strengthen the competition across the country and to new areas.”

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Cunningham says it is also important for young girls to have role models to look up to and for the game to be accessible for them to watch.

“It's a crucial part of the puzzle,” she added.

“There’s no point in getting all of these amazing facilities and putting funding into it if the girls can’t see the pathways or have role models in the game.

“When I started playing, I didn’t know there was an England team or even a women’s league, let alone name any of the players.

“That has now changed. These girls do have role models to look up to.

“All of the amazing Wigan Women’s players who have done some incredible things. The pathway is clearly there for them now.

“They can see England playing in amazing stadiums live on television and want to be a part of it.

“That’s what will keep girls involved in the game. We need to make sure the sport is supporting them and giving them opportunities to excel by letting them see it’s possible for them to achieve amazing things.”

Between 2022 and 2027, over £9.3million of National Lottery funding will be used to support the development of rugby league, and enable more girls to get involved in the game.

Ashton Bears club secretary Mark Webster, who is involved with the team, says he’s become passionate about women’s rugby league after his daughter wanted to get involved.

He said: “I’ve been involved since there were only eight girls and my daughter joined. That was six years ago, so for there to be 100 now is just fantastic, I’m just really proud to see it all growing, and long may it continue.

“My son played first at Ashton Bears, and someone set up the girls team. My daughter was watching them train, and said: ‘Dad, I fancy having a go.’

“To be honest at first I was a bit sexist, I was like ‘No, girls don’t play rugby.’

“Anyway, she bugged me and bugged me until she played, and she absolutely loved it.

“I got involved from there as the team manager. My daughter changed me, not the other way round.

“As girls come down now with their brothers, they see the teams and want a go, it’s just brilliant.

“Some start at five but when they get to 11 there is nowhere to go; here there is.

“The committee from day one has backed us, and done things like putting free coaches on for them when we play over in Yorkshire.

“Everything we’ve needed as a club, we’ve been supported in, and this is the fruits of their labour, seeing how many girls are here training.

“It’s great for them to see Jodie (Cunningham) coming down and mucking in with the sessions, and that’s what’s brilliant about rugby league, everyone is so approachable.”