St Helens have a target on their back as they bid for another clean sweep of honours when the new Betfred Women’s Super League season explodes into life this weekend.
That’s the view of Saints’ iconic skipper Jodie Cunningham, the reigning Woman of Steel and World Cup ambassador who admits there won’t be many people out there wanting her side to win.
The all-conquering treble-winners play bitter rivals Wigan in front of the Sportsman cameras on Sunday afternoon, with Cunningham warning that her side will thrive off those wanting to see them fail.
“I swear no-one wants us to win anything anymore because we did the treble last year,” Cunningham told The Sportsman. “Everyone is always supporting everybody else.”
Dominant Saints swept the board last year and laid down an early marker of their 2022 intent with a fiercely-contested Betfred Challenge Cup Final win over Leeds Rhinos at Elland Road last weekend.
It was a bruising game that the players have barely recovered from ahead of the big Super League start on Sunday.
“I feel like I’ve been hit by a bus,” says Cunningham. “After all the adrenaline and alcohol wore off all I could feel was pain!”
Having rolled over every opponent up to the final, Saints fell behind against the Rhinos before Cunningham’s try inspired a comeback win. It was the most severely tested her side has been for some time and bodes well for a hugely competitive league campaign.
“We didn’t panic against Leeds. We have scored so many points this year and have try scorers all over the field. I just always felt confident that someone would come up with something. We are not used to going behind or feeling that pressure.”
Cunningham has led by example both for Saints and the women’s game as a whole, from her early days playing childhood rugby league in Warrington to her current work as the RFL’s national women’s and girls’ development manager. On the field the 31-year-old remains as passionate as ever in World Cup year, with her side successfully defending the first of their three trophies last weekend.
“Winning the first major honour of the season takes the pressure off a bit,” she says.
"We’d never won a trophy before last year. Doing the treble was amazing but it is not like we have won loads of trophies – we just won loads last year.
“Nobody might want us to do the treble but we will do what we can. It’s going to be really tough, everyone has raised their game and we have a target on our back. Because we have won it, we are the team to beat.”
First attempt at knocking Saints off their perch in the Betfred Super League will go to the 2018 champions Wigan on Sunday, live on the Sportsman’s dedicated rugby league Youtube channel.
And expect Leeds and York to be hungry to have a crack too. The Rhinos won the title in 2019, a title they preserved throughout the pandemic in 2020 until the sport kicked back in with Saints’ clean sweep last year.
“There is a realisation here of what we have to do to push on and hopefully be lifting the Grand Final trophy at the end of the year,” says Rhinos star Keara Bennett.
“We have a very strong team and I just want to go out with my teammates, have fun, and win. I want to win this year. It’s a big year for the Women’s Super League with the World Cup at the end of the year. There is a lot more media coverage and the stadiums are exceptional and what you dream of. Hopefully the fans get behind us and bring in big crowds. “
Also expected to mount a strong challenge are York who came up just short in the Challenge Cup semi-finals.
“We narrowly missed out on the Cup Final and that has given us a boost to push on in the Super League” says York ace Tamzin Renouf.
“We have the talent to win the big games and maybe ruffle a few feathers.
“Any woman who has played in the Super League is a great advert for the women’s game as they work so hard and we all have full time jobs as well.
“I started playing in the Women’s Super League nearly four years ago and the growth of the game has been unreal. It is so much bigger and better than it ever was. “
Don’t miss the action as The Sportsman kicks off our coverage of the 2022 Betfred Women’s Super League this Sunday with live and exclusive coverage of St Helens versus Wigan Warriors on our dedicated Rugby League YouTube channel.
And the season opener is one of several matters debated on the first episode of our brand new monthly Women’s Rugby League Show, which you can catch on The Sportsman Rugby League from Thursday.