Natalie played for Wakefield Panthers in the glory days, undefeated for 10 years. She is one of the few players who has played for Great Britain and England. She is a member of the RFL roll of honour and been awarded the MBE for services to the game.
Julia Lee catches up with Natalie about her rugby league career
I blame getting involved in rugby league all on me cousin, Mick Turner. He was a coach down at Shaw Cross for rugby. Me brother were down playing and obviously, being quite hyperactive and interactive I just went down and started playing in the boys’ team.
I think I was about 8. I was in the pack and I think Lee was half back. He was little then – he’s obviously 6’3 now. I’m 2 year older than Lee. So, I played in the pack and Lee was a half back. And that’s how it started. Played there until probably 10-11 and then you go to high school and you’re not allowed to play with the boys any more. And then there were no girls’ team. So, I stopped playing. In high school, played football and hockey. I played football for Leeds United, I went and played hockey for England under 16s and then when I left high school it were Mick that contacted me and said, “I’ve just been on a coaching course for rugby with a woman called Jackie Sheldon”. And we got talking and said there are some women’s teams and I’ll give you a contact.
I was probably 18-19-year-old when I contacted Jackie and I started playing again and that were it.
I joined, Bradford, initially. Cos once I left school, I went to Bradford Uni. So, I went to Bradford and played for Dudley Hill Thunderbirds if I remember the title, just for a season, just to get back into it. And then obviously when you come back home, or moved, I ended up going to Wakefield, under Brenda Dobek. And then obviously Wakefield, probably the coach being Brenda, she pushed us, and we just won everything.
We had Brenda Dobek, she was obviously as fit as a fiddle, so small, petite, and yet her technique, especially when it came to be tackling, she could tackle anything. Shelley Land is another one that stuck in my memory, her at hooker, again her vision, like a Kieron Cunningham style if you compare her to a modern day. Joanna Will, again, full back. Lucy, used to call her Magoo, Lucy Ferguson and Jo Roberts, I suppose, because you’ve played at England level with those, and then you’ve got your Pash as well, a character. Some real good characters from the old days. And Sue Heyward as well. She ended up coming in to the management side at Wakey. The team were quite a force to be reckoned with.
We very rare lost a game, but that came down to how, when it came to pre-season, Brenda pushed us. We did fitness, we did skills, we weren’t just to turn up for a laugh. We did have a laugh, but we got the buy-in from the players and we all put the effort in and had the attitude. And it were because of Brenda that we probably got so many players into the England and Great Britain set-up, well, Great Britain set-up back then. And obviously Jackie was part and parcel of that set-up as well cos she was over, so… Good old days. Rugby was different when you had to pay for everything yourself.
I’d just started coming back playing and I remember as I’d started, they’d said they were doing, there was a tour, they’d got the squad, and they were doing warm-up matches so it was a… rest of the league. So, I played in that team and I remember in that, it was the first time I ended up colliding with Sally Milburn from Barrow and that were a clout and half and that were at Dewsbury. And I got asked to go on a reserve list. And I’d only just come back playing. But then obviously the following year, once I’d had another season, I got into the squad. There weren’t a tour until 98, but… That was the first taste…
I don’t remember how often we trained – to be honest – I’m showing me age – it was that long ago. I know you’d have every few months a meet-up and you’d, as it was coming up to a tour, you’d have more regular meet-ups. But again, it wasn’t like it is now where you go off into camps for a week or more. I think they meet more regular now. But it just wasn’t there and again, funding-wise. So, what we tended to do at Wakefield is whatever was coming through for England, especially fitness with Jackie and Brenda, we’d do it at club level, which obviously helped the club as we had a few players in it. If it wasn’t for that, I don’t think Great Britain would have been in the state we were in – because the coaches took it back to the team to improve us.
What I remember about the 1998 tour was fund raising. We had to raise – I’ve got £2000 off the top of my head. I’m sure each player had to raise £2000 in sponsorship, getting people to pack bags at supermarkets, doing raffles. And it were a lot of hard work to raise the funding, so, you know, some players probably missed out. Not because of talent but because they couldn’t afford and couldn’t raise the funds themselves, which, it’s a massive shame if you’ve got people that are good enough. When it comes down to finances. And that was hard, trying to get that money for the tour, cos we didn’t get support back then. It wasn’t advertised and obviously when you’re going on these tours, your accommodation might not be – wasn’t like the lads’, digs that you’d get. I’ve been on a few tours and like hotels that were in like little chalets, things like that. And it was the team that made the tour. Obviously, it don’t matter, the fact that you don’t have the best accommodation, travel arrangements might have been poor, and the food and the nutrition, education-wise, weren’t quite there, but it was the players made tours back then.
I think I joined the police in 99 and I don’t know whether it was 2000. I remember doing – see, I’ve done New Zealand and Australia a few times – all the dates get mixed up.
If it was 2000 it was here. Did we do Dewsbury, or was that later? I remember a few games. I’ve got it all… Memorabilia somewhere. I know I had a break, for work, and I just can’t quite remember when that break was. But I do remember playing at Dewsbury, because I remember getting changed on the other side of the pitch. And again, whenever we played at Dewsbury it was quite nice cos it was like my home town. So, all the family get to come and support you and obviously we’d done another match there as well – in 2013 we played another game. So, it’s nice that side, cos you get the home support.
You could see a great difference for Great Britain and England once funding started coming in. It was nice not to have raise the amount of money that we had. And I can’t remember – was that the one when we were all in the same hotel as well?
There’s still things now that aren’t quite right. There’s only bits of each tour that you can remember because you play in that many, that you’re playing with the same people. And you’re thinking, when did Mac retire, when did Bren retire? You know, when did other players retire, so you’d know well that were that tour, that were that game, things like that.
The specific game which sticks out for me is going over to New Zealand, playing in New Zealand for the first time. Your heart racing, the nerves, thinking oh my god, oh my god. Cos you don’t come across players like that – so the first time I thought, oh my god, how big are they? They’re big units and fit, but really nice. That’s my first memory. Pulling shirt on for ’t first time and being away from home for sport and not work, so that were different. I suppose first time you play in your home country and you’ve got home support, that sticks in your mind because you, you obviously, you can get boos and comments, but when you play for your home on home soil, you’ve actually got more cheering and it does spur you on. I remember playing at Dewsbury and hearing it. First time I were captain as well, that were in 2007 or 8? 2008 when we went to France. Obviously leading team out and obviously 2013 World Cup, you know, that sticks in your memory from playing certain games. I remember when we were in, I think it was Australia, and I think we lost to’ t Kiwis 16-4 and we were all over and we had our backs to’ t wall. And then we were playing Aussies and the referee… And still the thing that runs the same through all the years, is the standard of referees we get given. Even in the last World Cup, it was just not good enough. And it influences the games. And they’re the things – if you’re not good enough, you’re not good enough and you accept that, but when somebody else is influencing the game, that’s what’s frustrating. So, and again, that happened in Australia. Obviously, they were backing the Aussies and sent one of ours off, three to’ t sin bin, everything they could to stop us. That were probably one of the closest we’d ever come to turning them over, I think.
I have photos of the first tour of 98 that I got involved in with Jackie, the coach. One of the outstanding players for the history of rugby – Mac, Lisa Mac. Going forward, just a determination, a strength, a directness. And Brenda, her vision in the game, to spot and see things and her ability, really. I think those two for that tour were the stand-out players, along with Shelley who was like your little general, guiding the team round the pitch.
They were awesome, the Kiwis, weren’t they? The Maoris were like a different breed. But I suppose when you start playing it takes a while to get used to them. It were like playing against a team full of Lisa Macs, to be honest. I mean one Lisa Mac’s enough when you, when she’s playing for Bradford and we were against her at Wakey, but when you’re playing against a team full of Lisa Macs, you know, it makes you stand up and think, god, I’m going to have to pull my finger out.
The France tour was a very nice tour. Obviously, we play against France, because I think it just marks and you can – we don’t get a chance to play Southern hemispheres enough to gauge where we’re at, so we tend to play France a lot. And it is a good way to play and a good place to go play because actually it can be quite hostile. So, getting used to that environment. And it’s a good way of bringing in some younger players, inexperienced players, to get them used to playing in that international arena, playing against… For that it was also the backroom staff. If you look at what we had from 98, you know, who actually went on tour. We had a physio and a manager and a coach, but other than that, your backroom staff were very little. You look at the 2009 one and England, because the RFL were on board and putting some money in, you know – we had a doctor! We’d the strength and conditioning, you had a masseur, you had more than one coach, you had a kit man, you had a tour manager. You know, you had that additional support. So, I just looked at the pictures and thought, that’s the contrast. When you get the buy-in from the RFL and it’s that wrap-around care, you know. You need to be able to perform, you need the medical side of it, as well. You just look at it, compared to numbers of the support staff, behind the team makes a big difference. It just takes that extra pressure cos you know everything’s organised.
Going to Roll of Honour at the RFL, that was a big surprise, very nice surprise, it was about 3 years ago. The MBE came afterwards. I collected it 2017, was the MBE.
The MBE came out of blue. You get a letter. You’re like – you see the letter and it looks very officious and you’re like, oh god, what have I done, is it a ticket or something? What have I done? And then you read it and you’re like, what? Who’s done this, what’s it for? So that was a great honour. It was really, really nice to go down for a couple of days. I took Mum and Dad cos obviously you can’t – I wouldn’t have been in a position to go on the tours and play what I had if it weren’t for Mum and Dad. Obviously, Lee playing rugby as well, they were taking me to different games: one of them would come with me, one of them would go with Lee, you know, and supporting us. If we wouldn’t have had that. And I suppose because we weren’t – they had two cars and a car each and they could do that. If we’d only have had one car, one of us wouldn’t have been able to do as well, because we just wouldn’t have been able. It had a massive influence, the fact that we were able to have the opportunity to do what we’ve done.
My parents were so supportive and that very loud clap, as everybody always said of my mum. I can tell your mum’s here – she’s got that loud clap. And another memorable moment I suppose really, it sounds daft, but seeing our Lee isn’t airport. We’d both got picked for Great Britain and we were going to New Zealand and we were both at airport and we were waving, and I remember, two of my best friends were Leon Price and they were waving at us and it just felt so weird, cos obviously they were in the nice area and we weren’t. You know, just the different standards. But that were nice to both get picked at same time. I’ve got lots of really good memories. But you just pick out the special ones. Yeah, the first time you pull your shirt on, the first time I played in front of a home crowd, captaining my country and the honours you receive as a result of that. Obviously, you’ve got so many club trophies…
Wakefield were just. They were unbeatable. Nobody could come close to em. The talent pool that they had in Yorkshire. Obviously, there weren’t as many teams, so the talent pool was probably not as spread as it is now, but it came down to the desire of the coaching staff and the players. Everybody had the same mindset – yes, we have to enjoy it, because we don’t get paid, but if you want to win, you have to make sacrifices and you have to put the effort in. I think with the Super League coming in, that’s showing that if you want to perform at Super League level then it takes commitment and sacrifice and the right attitude. Yes, you’ve got to enjoy it, but if you only want to play for the enjoyment and you want to continue going out and having beers and not quite watching what you eat then fine, there’s the community level, which is great, cos we need that to feed up, so we can, you know, pick the talent pool. But also, it means people play for the enjoyment, which is… It’s not paid, so you’ve got to enjoy it, but at least there’s a ladder now for people to progress. It definitely takes the commitment of both the coaching staff and the players to do it and Wakefield were just outstanding.
We had us blips, but even when we had blips, we could probably grind out a win still. I remember Brenda being a big, big defender. In the fact that she made us do the defence work. Defence wins your games. Everybody enjoys the attack, in the limelight, scoring the tries, but it was always defence wins your game. If you don’t defend right, you won’t get the ball. You can only win when you’ve got the ball, so you’ve got to get your defence right. And I remember drilling that into us. And the fitness work. I hated it. I hated it but we had to do it. And she made us do it. And if we didn’t do it right, she made us do it again. So, you know, I think there’s a lot of players probably owe Brenda a hell of a lot. In how much she pushed us to achieve what we did, really. But then you’ve got the characters like Lucy and Shelley, who were definitely the funny characters in the team, even when it was hard graft, you could still have a smile on your face cos you had them two on your team. I remember that.
You look at the team and players now and physically, how they’ve changed with the knowledge and input we’ve got now. From strength and conditioning and things like that. That’s probably where it all started, having a team like that.
I took over the goal kicking role as well. And that was something I worked really hard at. It’s a massive part of the game. Which I still think now is neglected in the women’s game. No-one gets any coaching in kicking, it’s a massive part of the game. It’s a weakness but nobody ever gets coached.
The first to, when I kicked for goal, the first person to just suggest something to me for my kicking, were Leo Sullivan, when he were coach, when we went to France. He’s a winger, not a kicker, but he’s the first person that said right, just, if you stand at this angle you’ll just open up your hip and you’ll just get a longer kick and you’ll get more power and this that and other and he said just play with it, where you feel comfortable. It’s a massive area where we still don’t get the coaching. We’re always working on the ball and the hand, but the kicking game, if you’ve got a poor kicking game, you’re never going to get out of your area.
Last year, I put a shirt on for Wakefield. We got drawn against Leeds and they said, go on, do us a favour, just start for 20 minutes will you? And all I did when we got to fifth and last were just kick it and put it off the pitch, deep, turn the wingers, which is what you keep saying – turn the wingers, give you some time, just keep them in that area. And for like 20 minutes we kept them in their own half. And I just think that’s still an area where the women’s game, we just don’t get coaching in it. In the kicking game, either out of hand or even kicking at goal, there’s no coaching in that any more, or ever.
I’d done level 1 and 2 coaching certificate years ago. It’s just obviously with the job that I do, working shifts, I’d love to be able to coach full time, as in, on a regular basis, but with the job working shifts, I can’t commit. I was asked to Wakefield Trinity, to become an ambassador for the girls’ and women’s game, which I agreed to as I’d obviously like to come and help out at training, which I have done, but it’s just obviously, again, we’ve moved house, we’ve done a massive 5 month renovation, so it takes, that takes, with full time and 2 kids, I said straight away, I’d love to do it, I just can’t commit to it. But I’m hoping now that we’re in the house, I can back to doing some more training, because, I actually want to do some training myself and just keep ticking over. I keep looking at that, you know, the legend’s overs… Andrea Dobson’s one of my best mates and she keeps trying to pull me out of retirement. Ohh, we’ve lost both of our centres, and I’ve said that’s fine, no, I am definitely retired, I am not coming back playing. I know at Wakefield they manage to get me to put a kit on now and again, but that were just at community level, just to give them some support, but no, definitely retired.
I keep thinking about masters, but again it comes down to, obviously, because it isn’t a professional thing and it’s not, you know – I’ve got a job and I’ve got a career and it’s quite demanding and working shifts. And with us both having those roles, usually, if I’m not at work I’ve got the kids. It might be that I’m not actually work but I’ve got them two and they’re only 4, so they need to be in bed, and obviously trainings don’t usually finish until like half eight, so it’s too late for me to take them really and I don’t want to interfere with their schooling just yet, so. No, it is a lot harder, but hopefully it is something I can get back into. I think I need to get back to doing a bit of training first.
Get used to that odd-shaped ball, as they say, again.
I don’t think that there’s any one moment that is stuck in my memory. I think what I’d have to say is you end up with a lot of memories, but a lot of friends that you pick up along the way. How being involved in rugby at such a young age actually helps you in life, because it teaches you that you need commitment, there are ups and downs, you are going to fail and it’s how you bounce back and learn from failure or mistakes. So that’s helped me in my career as well. It’s given me some life skills. Camaraderie and I don’t think there’s one specific memory I have of it, because I’ve got that many. A few individual ones, but I think overall, it’s just that… The other thing is the team spirit that you get when you’re playing has got to be the one thing that really sticks in the mind, because you succeed or fail as a team. But definitely, if you try to achieve a high level at rugby, it will teach you things you can take out into the real world – dedication and how you bounce back from failure, how you have to put your mind to something and work hard to get what you want.