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Lisa Hodgson

Lisa Hodgson

Lisa was brought up in a rugby league family so when she started training as a physiotherapist, she would always have a role to play in the sport. As a new physiotherapist she had a baptism of fire at Dewsbury with head coach Sir Alex Murphy and went on a steep learning curve with Featherstone and Hunslet. In 2000 Lisa was a trailblazer as the first Rugby Football League Head of Sports Medicine developing rugby league and sports first medical standards. Well before other sports she implemented compulsory head testing and lead the implementation of cardiac heart screening. Julia Lee talks to Lisa about her memories, career in rugby league and sport

Really, rugby league has always been in my family, I guess. My dad took my mum courting to Featherstone Rovers in the 50s. They got married in 1958, so the early 50s. My grandad always went to Featherstone Rovers. I can remember my parents sat screaming in the living room when Featherstone Rovers were at the Challenge Cup final. I always remember the guy sticking his arm out and the Featherstone Rovers player getting garrotted. So, it’s always been in my family. When I started my first physio role, which was in Calderdale, Halifax Royal Infirmary, the Huddersfield physio was working there and she took me down for a couple of sessions to look at the sport, and then she got me to cover a game.

So, it was a first team fixture at Huddersfield and Sir Alex Murphy was the coach. And he knew it was my first game. The other two physiotherapists I was shadowing were away on conferences. One of the players went down. Alex Murphy grabbed me by the scruff of the neck, and he said, “You don’t bring that player off”, and then he looked me straight in the eyes and said, “Unless he’s –ing dead”. And then he pushed me onto the field. Well, I was shaking and then I went to the player. “You look to be hurt” he replied “Of course, I’m hurt!”. I remember thinking, I can’t do this. Once I was back off the field in the dug-out Alex Murphy turned and just winked at me, he said “welcome to rugby”. D ’you know what I mean? So, it was just all a …quick yet massive introduction into RL and I realised on reflection I enjoyed it, so I stayed and did more shadowing. Huddersfield played Australia in a game whilst I still helped/was associated with Huddersfield and I got to meet Mal Meninga and the Aussie players – what a privilege, (think it was the centenary as RL launched in Huddersfield – was this 1995?)

I got a role with Dewsbury Academy as their Physiotherapist and I did that the following season (1992/3) just covering games home and away. Then I went for a role advertised as Lead Physiotherapist for Featherstone Rovers. They’d only ever had two physios before. The dad and then the son after him. And he used to be the superintendent at Pontefract Royal Infirmary, and he was in his mid-70s and he was deciding to retire. So, they’d only ever had 2 physiotherapists in the 70-odd years they’d been there. This was 1993, and it was Steve Martin, the Australian coach, and they interviewed me and – I still lived with my parents at that point, I wasn’t yet married and – they phoned to offer me the job, but I wasn’t at home so they left a message. I considered their offer and I thought, no, I’m going to stay for a bit more experience rather than rush to be Head Physio I’m going to stay as academy physiotherapist at Dewsbury. I recall vividly telling my dad over Sunday lunch my decision, his response was “well, you can’t now, cos I’ve accepted the job on your behalf!!”. It was his team, it was Featherstone Rovers! I remember whenever Dewsbury or Huddersfield had played at Featherstone, even if I’ve waved to my dad or acknowledged him in the crowd, cos my dad always stood at the end, he wouldn’t acknowledge me because I wasn’t for Featherstone.

So, I started at Featherstone in 93 and I left in 99. I had a great seven seasons with them. I remember Steve Martin, the first season I was there, Featherstone was in dire straits – there was no Super League then. We were in the top flight and we had no money for strapping, and I remember Steve Martin telling me to go to the chemist, to advise them that we wouldn’t be paying our medical bill – but it would be good for me because it would be “character building”.

I worked at Pontefract Hospital then as a senior physio and he used to ask me to come and treat the players there twice a day. And I used to say, some of them don’t need it, and he’d say, well, I think they do. And I was young and naive and didn’t yet have the confidence to say no to a coach back then, it’s really difficult when you first start in sport as you don’t have that experience. I remember advising him as my means of saying no that if I left the hospital at lunchtime, there’s no way I’ll be able to get back within an hour, park up and get back to work. So, from the next day forward, he had a player – different players every day – come pick me up from the hospital with a sandwich in the car. Then he’d take me to Featherstone for the hour then that or another player would take me back to work. That went on the whole season no matter who was injured or not.  When I look back, I think about all the stuff I used to do, so young and naïve.

And then it just takes you a couple of years and you get used to it and you say no – I’ll decide when they need treatment, I’ll decide what we need to do and how often. Coaches need that in their medical team.  I met some fabulous medical staff during my time in RL and back then we all seemed to stay longer with our teams, I became Secretary of the RL medical association and we used to meet annually and discuss medical matters before anything official became established – that was probably my first contact with the RFL itself, Joe Lydon was the performance director at that time.

Some highlights with Featherstone like the challenge cup semi-final at Elland road, Fiji training during the 1995 World Cup at Post Office Road and inviting me to be their physiotherapist and then the build up to the first ever promotional grand final 1998 following the condensed season and the first-year super league (summer rugby).

I did a Master’s degree in 96 and took a leave of absence from the hospital for 10 months. And Featherstone doubled my salary for the whole time I was doing my Master’s degree, to support me through it. They were great with me, in fact they never reduced it afterwards either. I worked with some great coaches like Steve and David Ward. It was in 99-2000 that I took on Hunslet RLFC as well. I was their consultant physiotherapist. Because I needed another cohort of players for my PhD which I had started in 1997. Then I stayed with David Plange another year at Hunslet (they won the Grand Final that year, but never were promoted into the super league), then I went with him to Warrington, did a year in Super League, but then I was by that time already head of sports medicine for rugby league. Maurice Lindsay was in charge. He was still at Wigan. And that was when he declared that it was a conflict of interest for me to be head of sports medicine for rugby league and working for Warrington Wolves, because of the information I knew. Not realising that any confidential information was confidential, so I only did one season with Warrington and in Super League.

I was successful at interview at Red Hall for the England Academy physiotherapist role in 98/99 and stayed with them until after 2002 season and then I didn’t do any on-field stuff apart from the odd thing at different camps for the remainder of my time with the RFL. I worked with some great coaches, originally Mal Reilly and then the late great Mike Gregory, what an inspiration he was and hands down the best coach I worked with. Everyone loved Mike. The academy had some fabulous wins in France and on our 2001 tour to Australia and New Zealand then winning the school boys in the UK the following season.

I started as Head of Sports Medicine for the Rugby Football League in 2000. Things appeared to be on the horizon for the sport, I remember Disney took us over to the World-Wide Sports complex in 2000 on a recci for England to play there and discussions were had about American teams being developed. I was the first Head of Sports Medicine for rugby league. It was part of the world class performance programmes that Sport England funded. It was a 9-year plan. And really, we developed sports medicine in rugby league from scratch. We developed a criteria for staff and clubs, an interview process, a point of contact for club medical staff and the on-field trauma care course IMMOFP – Immediate Medical Management on the Field of play – was started in 2002. It became mandatory in the 2004 season. We devised the first ever sports medicine standards – minimum medical equipment, qualifications for medical staff, and salaries for international duties. All those started I think also in 2002. We created an International Staff Panel and a Panel of Experts to discuss medicine within the game, so decisions had a broader view then purely me within the medicine department and the Panel of Experts fed into the board and had legal representation too. We introduced head injury testing for concussion back in 2002 after the first ever Vienna 2001 consensus on concussion management in sport, which I attended in Vienna. It started with pen and paper testing for two years and then we introduced computerised cog sport in the 2004 season. The then young referee (Ben Thaler) helped logistically getting that into clubs. In 2003 we introduced cardiac screening, with cardiac risk in the young – CRY – with all our national development and England players. I’m gonna say that was 2002/2003. AEDs became mandatory (Automated External Defibrillators) at clubs in 2004. So, we were quite innovative in those years, ahead of many other sports. We were quite advanced, really, for a smaller governing body of sport if you would like. In those early days we also had a tri-sport policy on Blood Borne Infectious diseases with The FA and the RFU. My swan song, I left the RFL in 2009, and I ran the first ever RFL medical conference in sport and exercise medicine at the Thackeray Museum in Leeds in 2009 – it was well received and brilliantly attended.

[What’s your most memorable times?]

I think, for me, because I was already a physio, working in rugby league, because I was then the secretary of the Rugby League Medical Association, I knew a lot of the medical staff. You know, you go from club to club, don’t you? You get some experiences. I think knowing all the people that I knew and then being in a position to make the changes that we’d discussed as an honorarium Rugby League Medical Association for years, was fabulous. Having the support of all those people and watching it grow. Developing things that didn’t exist. You know, I had a blank sheet of paper and the ability to be able to develop things. Prior to this during my PhD days (1997 to 2000) I applied to Joe Lydon, Performance Director, for a grant to purchase a clegg hammer to test rugby league pitches – the condensed 1996 season had doubled the incidence of injury in RL (that was my published master’s thesis). The questions were did this increase arise due to a condensed season that 95-96, before we went into summer rugby, or was it the harder grounds that the summer season now imposed? So, with the Sports Turf Research Institute, my PhD was testing ground conditions for two years, and it actually was just the sheer fact of the game, how it was developing. The players were running with more speed. It wasn’t the grounds that had changed to increase that, it was the sport developing itself. RL gave me a grant and kept in touch with the work and that’s when I got a little bit more involved with rugby league, and that’s when the Rugby League Medical Association got a little bit more involved in helping shape the game. When the job of head of sports medicine was advertised with the sport England world class programmes it felt right for it to be my role, I was already helping to shape this, I applied and was successful.  I had a PhD in sports and exercise medicine, my research was in RL and the role was head of sports medicine for rugby league. I also had the experience of running on the pitch since 1993 so I’d had 9 years’ experience and was already the England Academy physio at that point, so I’d also got international experience. Everything just seemed to fit into place for me. It seemed like it was my role in life, it was where I needed to be. Also made my dad very happy, of course!  It was unusual back in those times for a physiotherapist to get such a role, once again quite ground-breaking from RL.

[Tell us a bit more about being a club physio]

The club physio wise, at Featherstone I used to do 5 evenings a week, Saturday mornings, and then Sunday fixtures. It was full on. You look back now and think how did I do that and work full time? But I guess you do when you’re younger. Club experience is great. And being a girl, people always used to say, well the things you must see, the things you must do, but it’s nothing like that. And d ’you know what? Every single player treated you with utmost respect, you were one of the team. You were respected because you helped them. The medical room is that heart/centre of any team, it is the place where players come in. But they also trust, they know you’re ethics, they know your confidentiality. It was a great place and all those players always protected you. I always felt one of the team. I never felt like I was a girl or a woman. Outside of it I was always part of their team. In fact, probably they told me far too much. You know, they always treated you as one of the lads. It was intense, obviously, like any other professional environment and back in the early days 11 of our players were full time and 50% of those international players.  The first ever year of Super League, Featherstone were in the grand final with Wakefield. The final season before Super league we were in the top division finishing in 11th that spot that year, with Workington and Wakefield. Workington on points difference went up. The following season then saw both teams (Wakefield and Featherstone) compete in the first grand final in 1998 and Featherstone lost in the final few minutes – it was heart-breaking. The build up to the grand final leading into and during those play-off games, we were just on such a winning streak that there were no injuries. Like any other club, when you’re losing there are more injuries. I think on average we got about 9 injuries a game, I think that would be the average in rugby league. The incidence of injury per 1000 hours is quite high compared to other sports of course, and, you know, winning club rugby was always a great feeling. It always was. You always felt part of that. The grand final was great – losing it by 2 points in those last few minutes was not great. That seemed to be like the end of Featherstone if you like. They’d put so much into that. Ironically, I was with Hunslet the year after and they won the grand final, but they didn’t get promoted. And they put so much financially into that that they financially couldn’t cope the following seasons. And, you know, I’ve been involved in 2 grand finals, one losing, one winning, but the changes in the clubs after that was quite significant actually. It took a lot out of them both and neither profited long term.

[Tell us about your international role]

Mike Gregory, god bless him, was my coach. I remember being in France with Mike Gregory and we got there, and we realised there was no water, so three of us – me, Mike and the assistant coach from Hull, went out looking for bottled water.  We went to the end of the street and Mike Gregory tried out his French on this guy, asking him directions to the supermarket. And he tried to charge Mike Greg for directions to go and get water! It was hilarious, needless to say we didn’t pay.

Playing a game in France, at the end of a game, players all getting a bottle of red wine. Players are all giving it to me, filling the ice box with red wine, because they knew I drunk red wine and they never did (also the academy players were a bit young!)

Some challenges of working abroad in France – the heat, the food and the travel play their toll on players. Australia and New Zealand tour in 2000 against Australian schoolboys and New Zealand academy. And then the year after they came over to us, I think it was 2002, we were the first ever to win the Schoolboys at that point – historical victory it was known as. That was under Mike Greg’s great leadership. You know, some fabulous places we went to, some fabulous venues we saw. International was always that bit more pressurised, but because it was the academy, the players didn’t have any of the idiosyncrasies of the first team players. They were always polite, back then the academy players were players like Rob Burrows, Danny McGuire, Richard Mathers, Eorl Crabtree, Jon Wilkin, Sean O’Loughlin, Gareth Hock to name but a few, they were all brilliant from both sides – happy to list them all and the great back room staff if you have space? I remember Kevin Sinfield in one of my first years with the academy coming to me with an injury. We were at Elland Road training, and Mike Greg, god bless him, spoke to me afterwards and said, “there is the future captain of England”. Kevin could’ve only been what, 17 back then – No way Mike could have known, but he said that then and he was proved right years later.

Some fabulous experiences. The players, always being polite. You know, the academy players – can we help carry your equipment? Can we do this? Can we do that? I’ve met some fabulous characters along the way. Roy Powell, god bless him. An international player who came on loan to us at Featherstone from the old Bradford Northern. He was always such a gent. We had him on loan. 2 years before he passed away. So, 96/97 seasons. He was coming to the end of his career and he used to like to stretch before and after training. And I could never leave till the last player left. And he was always apologising – sorry sweetie – he always called every girl sweetie. Sorry sweetie, I won’t be long, if I don’t stretch, I’ll never walk tomorrow. And he used to keep me back after training half an hour longer for a whole season than I’d ever stayed before, because he used to warm down. He was a real gent no one minded helping Roy. I will always remember he left me a voice message on Christmas Eve 2 years later, he was then player coach at Batley asking me to speak with his wife Helen about his most recent injury. One of my biggest regrets – he said call me back, I thought I will after Christmas as he had the two little ones and you know I never did get to call him back as he passed away 3 days later on 27th December.

[Did you have any aspirations to go further in the international game?]

Yes. I would have liked to have done first team, but by 2000 I was already Head of Sports Medicine and unfortunately, which is definitely not the case now, because the Chief Medical Officer is still with the team, but at that point it was decided that I needed to be totally independent. So, in 2002, my running on the pitch and my career as a hands-on therapist changed. And I suppose I’d got more into policies and procedures and regulations by this point, that really my sport and exercise medicine role had gone from being hands on, clinical, to being more administrative and management. I appointed and managed the international medical teams from then until I left the role. I somehow also migrated into teaching not something that I had planned to do. I had always done a bit of guest lecturing and as a PhD student I had had to do some teaching to the master’s students (I taught anatomy and dissected cadavers) but it came as a surprise how much teaching I eventually did become involved with. When I left the RFL in 2009 I started up my own consultancy company and I also went to work at Nottingham University Medical School Teaching on the Masters in Sport and Exercise medicine there promoting through teacher to lecturer to assistant professor.

I left Nottingham Uni in 2016 and started my current post with the FA as their Medical Education Lead for football responsible for medical education across the professional and grass roots game. I was also appointed as Visiting Professor at Leeds Beckett University and am still that currently, so I guess all my career has rolled into the next stage if you like. Each time getting better and better, my husband said to me on getting my role in football how much a privilege it was to be able to influence two major sport and you know it really has been.

[So, you’re doing the strategy and policies in RL?]

It was a blank sheet. There wasn’t any medical policies and procedures in place. Realistically there were obviously the RFL bylaws, which stated that there had to be a GMC registered doctor present, a physio had to be present and there were head injury guidelines. At that point, I think it was if they’re knocked out for less than a minute it was a 48-hour ban and a 2 week, 15 days, and 22 days. So, there were small items in place, but there were no specifics. You could be any sort of doctor that worked and run on. So, in the very early 2000’s – I’m trying to think when the Chris Eubank Michael Watson fight was? And obviously the British Board of the Boxing Federation were successfully sued. They were the first ever governing body in sport to be successfully sued, because the court declared the medical management ringside failed to deal with the injury in what was deemed a sufficient timeframe if I recall correctly. It frightened other NGBs so, then I got all the support I needed from rugby league to be able to create a trauma pathway and speciality pathway for medical staff working and wanting to work in RL. Initially we brought in WYMAS as then was – West Yorkshire Ambulance Service to do some first aid training for the clubs. And over time I developed that into IMMOFP. I had 9 core faculty members and we developed a course, that still exists. It was the first ever sport-specific course in any governing body in this country. It was the first course, sports course, approved by the Royal College of Surgeons, Faculty of Pre-Hospital Care Edinburgh. It was before rugby union, it was before football. And the aim was, I guess, to help players, but also to support medical staff. Because they were left wide open, with little policy or procedures in place and subjective decisions being made. Sports medicine was so different even 19 years ago. Back in the old days, I mean I remember one of the first games I ever did, players drank sherry at half time!! I always remember Shaun telling me when they stopped the Cas players having sherry, one of the players decided that he’d rub it into his skin instead, just in case it really helped. There was loads of myths, weren’t there, back then – items like dripping on bread as being a training or half time snack! I soon put a stop to that one.

So, we were going from strength to strength. Sports medicine was going from strength to strength (becoming a speciality when we won that Olympic bid). We made doctors sit on the bench, rather than be in the hospitality suite. It wasn’t well received, but people understood the benefits. We made it mandatory for the physio and the doctor to sit on the bench. We then brought in training regulations – although they never became a by-law, the by-laws are only deemed as being about match day. There’s five times as much time the players spend in training, you know. What’s the minimum equipment? So, it was there to protect the players, but it was also there to protect the medical staff. To give them something like IMMOFP, which is a 2-day advanced trauma management course in sport specific to RL. The need was there because a lot of the medical staff who worked at clubs back then had little formal sports medicine or trauma training, their day job could be a General Practitioner, could be a physio, but they’re not necessarily dealing with trauma. And even in hospital trauma differs from pre-hospital trauma as in the latter in sport there is no response team set up or team of practitioners who will run onto help. I always remember one emergency medicine consultant who was very against doing IMMOFP, until he had no choice. So, in 2002 and 2003, he still refused to do it. By 2004 it was mandatory he had no choice. So, he came to do it at Castleford and after the course he came up to me and said, “I’m blown away, I didn’t understand the reason now I have done it I am totally sold, and I’d like to teach”. And then he became one of the faculty and has been a member ever since. It changes people’s perceptions, because an A&E consultant, for example, may take a player off a spinal board in A&E, but they’d never be on their knees in the mud putting somebody on it. Pre-hospital care and in-hospital care are always different. And as you’ll know, we’ve continued to build on this since 2002 and the course has gone from strength to strength. I left my role in 2009 at the RFL when the sport England funding stopped but I have been kept on as a Consultant ever since and still to this day Direct and develop the IMMOFP course – it was my ‘baby’ and I still look after it 10 years on.

My two special topics of interest have always been sudden cardiac arrest and concussion. And they’re probably my proudest moments of what I’ve been able to achieve at rugby league. We’ve taught sudden cardiac arrest in the young, its presentation and management since we started the courses and we’ve taught concussion management and developed both over the post twenty years. People talk now about the prevalence of sudden cardiac arrest. The prevalence hasn’t changed – we know there’s 12 deaths every week. That’s not changed – it probably is an underestimate – but the thing that’s changed is that it’s more well known. Same as Gazza made the ACL famous. There’s always been ACL injuries, but you always need somebody to make it famous. We’ve been able to do that, and we were one of the first ever sports to introduce cardiac screening, which is why, at the moment, I’ve got a consultancy with CRY. I do their elite athlete screening. I’ve helped organise the screening prior to 2012 Olympics, prior to Rio and again now pre-Tokyo. My role with CRY was developed because of how we had organised screening within rugby league. We did the first screening at Red Hall, we actually taught the first courses at Red Hall, I think they found us noisy but daren’t approach me to send us elsewhere! It was when I was on maternity with Darcy, December 10th, 2004, I went on maternity, and I think it was the January course. I came back to work mid-March and they said, “Oh, while she’s on maternity, let’s move the courses out to Castleford and they did!”,

I enjoyed writing the pathways and policies though and I found a lot of satisfaction and achievement from those and many still stand and continue now when you look at RL. We had a pathway for medical staff, and they could see how they could aspire, and we made sure that whether you were the physio for the under 15s or the physio for a first team, the salary scales were the same, the role is the same. And it’s frustrating in sport and it happens in every sport, but the most inexperienced people tend to get the jobs with the littlies. But yet the littlies can be one of your most demanding roles. And from a first team viewpoint, you might have two or three doctors, you might have 2 or 3 physios, you’ve probably got a nurse, you’ve got a masseur, you’ve got a paramedic, maybe and actually your role could be perceived as easier. Yes, the pressure on you and from your management is harder and the players more demanding but compare that role to when you are the only physio, maybe with an away team doctor who you’ve never met, the challenges on you as a youngster, with academies, working with teams can be a lot harder. Same on tour, of course. You have to plan for every eventuality, take everything with you. I enjoyed the planning as much as the doing.

I remember my 32 days in Australia and New Zealand being one of the hardest 32 days I’d ever done. People who say going on tour is a brilliant holiday, they’ve never done a tour. It’s bloody hard work. But yeah, it was good. Mike Gregory took us golfing. All I wanted to do was have a day of rest. After my golf experience, he made sure that their next golfing trip, he left me in the hotel!

[You were a real trailblazer and continue to be]

I think then we had the ability to make changes, the funding was there and as a sport it was ready to progress.  I had done a masters in sport and exercise medicine and I had expanded my horizons and I guess because I had that desire, I wanted to make RL better, I myself wanted to be better. And because I knew a lot of the medical staff in rugby league and they knew me, I was able to make those changes. We tried to introduce injury surveillance but as the years went on, we only ever managed pen and paper testing even after years of meetings to make it computerised, the funding put into medical seemed to slow down post mid 00’s.  I do however remember going to the world class programme meetings and I do remember Sport England saying let’s use rugby league as an example. Because we had things in place. We had sports medicine standards, we had IMMOFP, way before the other sports. Way, way, way before football and union. Rugby union, rugby league, introduced head injury testing at the same time. We’d got a plan in place for cogsport. Funding was an issue for us. It was delayed a year, so rugby union did get it one year before us, but everything had started at the same point. British horseracing had it before both codes and continued to help support me via their CMO (Mike Turner). We collaborated back then as multisport. The head of medicine for football at that time (Alan Hodson) had taught me during my first year as a physiotherapy student, the CMO for RU (Simon Kemp) had worked with me at Nottingham when I was a research physiotherapists completing my PhD and the left Nottingham the year after I left to join the RFU to take up his role (which he still holds) and the CMO for BHA had taken my under his wing in Vienna and we shared our experiences and helped each other – they were great times.

So, we used to get together on a regular basis and we shared ideas. We introduced a blood-borne diseases policy. At Adel Shaw Goddard in Leeds, who were the FA lawyers at that point. We did tri-sports policies, and this is back in what? 2001? We all worked together. Sports medicine is a small world and I think doing sports medicine as a Masters and a PhD opened up me as being more a global practitioner rather than just a physio at that point. Not that it’s “just a physio”, but do you know what I mean? It opened up my horizons. And when I could see those changes and how much better we were making the game. We had interview processes for the home nation physios, and I supported England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. And the medical staff could see the ability of not just knowing the coach but being able to go through a process and being the right person for the job and that a career pathway was in place. And the standards, if you look back at those first standards we wrote. In fact, I look at the regulations now and some of the standards and it’s still my original work, it’s very rewarding. All those years later. I’m not saying it hasn’t progressed – of course it has. And I still keep a consultancy with the RFL. But we seemed to go on a curve like that and then we seem to have plateaued medically which is such a shame when you see how other sports have continued to progress with educational and development programs.

[You should be so proud of that]

I am, I am. You look back and with hindsight and experience, you think it’s, there’s so much more I could have done. We tried and tried. We did the pen and paper testing. And injuries, and how to collate all that data, and we were always promised a database that would come in – you know, the idea was that the England players would all be on a database and their club medical staff would have access to that database while they were on tour. They couldn’t edit it, but they could always see what was wrong. I made sure that they weren’t just away with an international squad. Whatever that squad was, that the medical staff was kept up to date, you know? Cos ultimately, they were their players. We were borrowing them for a short period of time. It was a challenging job. It was really interesting. I loved it. It was a shame all the funding ran out, really. And the job ceased to exist. I worked with some great performance directors after Joe and was set some great challenges from David Waite and Graeme Thompson it was just a shame, we couldn’t push it medically like the RFU and football have been able to do.

[You finished with the conference then?]

I remember trying to put that together, before I knew I was leaving the RFL. They were saying that these kinds of things don’t work, but everybody who came to that, even the performance director at that time, said, oh, wow, you’ve changed my mind. It was brilliant. It got everybody together in rugby league. They were crying out for it. Other sports have it. There’s never been one since, which is such a shame. That was 10 years ago. It was brilliant. It was really well attended. It was sold out. We had different arms running at different times. We had science and medicine, we had forums, we had debates, it was a brilliant 2 days hosted by Phil Clarke.

[The things you’re most proud of]

I think making the changes that still exist today some I influenced some unfortunately took longer to come into fruition. I remember leaving a document – it advised the costs to the RFL that if they invested £52,000 in 2009 to cardiac screen every signed-on player in rugby league to ensure every player not just England or development players could be screened, then the clubs could take it on themselves annually for those that required a repeat or those new to the professional game. And it never happened… But it exists now I guess that what is important, but it could have existed years ago if the funding and support have been there.

The minimum standards. The minimum standard equipment is still the same set of equipment we had back in 2002. We were probably ahead of our time.

I had an international panel of experts and I had an international panel. Those people came to meetings, honoraria and we did some great work. I made sure it was never just me. Ultimately as head of sports medicine you have the final say, but I made sure I included everybody. Every person that was international, past or present, had a seat on that panel if they wanted. And the panel of experts, Emma Rosewarne sat on it. Whoever our FA legal person was sat on it. And then we had somebody from outside of the sport, we had a sports medicine expert and we could bring in other people. The agendas included medical improvements for the game, to make the game better. Whether that was payment, salaries, or whether it was screening, or whether it was some other thing. And then we would take that to the panel of experts and then take that to the board. It worked really well. We did the screening for the camps. We had all those hundred players coming through, didn’t we? MSK screening as well as cardiac screening. We used to listen to the heart before we ever used CRY. We were innovative. It been great to reflect, in hindsight I could have done so much more – but saying this out loud, we did achieve a lot and I have some great people to thank who helped me with that journey and some fabulous people I worked with at Red Hall during those times.  I can safely say I do miss it and them even as happy as I am now.

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Sarah Cooper-Birkenhead

In 2011 Sarah went down to Featherstone training so she could spend more time with...