In 2011 Sarah went down to Featherstone training so she could spend more time with her partner. After a couple of training sessions, she was thrown in the deep end and never looked back playing for Featherstone in the summer and Oulton Raidettes in the winter.
Julia Lee finds out more about her involvement in rugby league
I met my now wife, who’s Katie Birkenhead, she’s now Katie Cooper Birkenhead, and she were doing the internationals, she were playing at Wakefield and Featherstone. And we never spent any time together because she were doing Featherstone training and she were doing the England training and then she were doing bits on ’t side as well and I said, “I’ll tell you what, I’ll come down and I’ll train with Feath and I’ll lose a bit of weight of well and I can spend some time with you”. At the time as well, we both had full time jobs, so that took up a lot of time. And at the time, Brenda Dobek were the coach down at Featherstone, and I’d never picked up a rugby ball in my life, and she just went, “Well, you can come and train, and if you want you can play if you want”. Anyway, a couple of training sessions afterwards she were chucking me on ‘t front line at prop and it just went from there. I think I played for like 4 or 5 years with Featherstone through the summer and then I went and played down at Oulton Raidettes as well through’ t winter, cos they set up a winter league as well.
I started training in 2011 and I started playing in 2012. And then I only recently packed it in. It’ll have been mid-season in 2017. I changed jobs, so I couldn’t afford to go into presentations with …
I’m a fleet manager at Northern Gas Networks, just the other side of Leeds.
So, I had a good couple of years playing. And I’ll tell you what – the only regret that I have is that I didn’t do it from being young, because it teaches you so much about being in a team and all different types. Different types of people that you get in ’t team, how to get people to do their best and what you need to do to target different types of people. It were, it were best couple of years of my life, playing with them guys. It were really good. I really enjoyed it.
I think the first time I played for Featherstone, we had 10 players and we’d gone over to Leigh and we lost. And it were at a time when we were short on players and it were quite a regular thing – you’d turn up with 10, 11, 12 players and you’d just do what you could to get through ’t game. And that were my first game and I absolutely enjoyed it. I’ve never blown out of my arse so much in my life! And it were great as well, it were great.
But I think one of my best moments, it were, it were my second season at Featherstone, that I’d finished, and I wanted to sign up for a winter team to keep progressing, cos I’m fairly new to it. And I signed up with Oulton Raidettes and the coach down there said would you be us manager, not a manager, us coach, no, us captain? So, I’m, I’ve not really done captain before – I’d only played like 2 seasons, I don’t think I ‘m at that stage really to do that. So, I did it, I stepped up as being captain and then we took them all the way through ’t season. I don’t think we lost any games. And we won the Cup Final as well. We played it down here at Featherstone as well, and it were great to be like, come back to my summer base, and win a final with the team. It were dead good. Yeah, it were probably the best time. Best memorable moment in rugby I think.
The cup final was played down here at Featherstone. So, it were great to come back and to be like, at home. In a sense, even though it weren’t Oulton’s home, but it were Featherstone’s, my home, so it were dead good.
And I think that with the final being on an Easter weekend, it brings a lot of people out as well, so you get a really good crowd, as well, down there, being Easter weekend.
Brenda coached us down at Featherstone. And then there were Matthew Blue trained us as coach at Oulton Raidettes. Some of key players for me, especially being at Featherstone cos it were a team that attracted the England international players as well, cos we did so well in ‘t League. Brenda, just before that, were the England coach as well, so people wanted to play under her all ’t time. Being part of Featherstone then were dead good, cos you got to play and learn from the likes of like Andrea Dobson and Emma Slow and Lindsay Anfield who’s now coaching Cass Tigers Women. So, they’re all them England internationals there. They coached you as well, cos you’re only as strong as your weakest person, so the newbies, they just grouped around them and just brought them along, coached them right up.
They did the students, the Lionesses and the armed forces sort of game. And then from them team it’s where they picked the internationals from, so I played a game, got into the Lionesses squad and played a couple of games with them guys, but there were too many better props out there and I couldn’t commit to them sort of training and gym sessions, so that’s as far as I got. Mid-level, Lionesses.
At minute, I come down and watch them if they’re at home and if they’re playing like at Castleford or Wakefield I’ll go and watch them away. I’ll go and watch other teams as well, like Oulton, I keep in touch with Oulton Raidettes. But this year, I’ve sponsored Jessie Hammond. She were out last year with her ACL, so this is her first season back and I thought what a way for her to come back if I can get her sponsored. So we got, at work, they give us a bonus every year and I always try to put it to something good, something useful, and I thought well I’ll take a chunk out of it and I’ll give it to Jess and get her sponsored and that’s her kit sorted and the subs paid and everything like that.
I just keep in touch by supporting them on game days and coming down and watching them.
The Super League started just before I stopped playing, at the time I were a player and a team manager, so I’d be liaising with RFL to get the actual match days set up, and kick off times, and the locations and the venues and stuff. And I were actually part of the first meeting with Castleford and Wakefield and there were a couple of – other teams as well, (I’m not going to swear), and we were all sat in the room at RFL and they came to us and said look, we want to start up a women’s super league team. We want it to mimic and be the same as the men’s super league team. And it were then, when we were all sat in that room, and we said yeah, and we all signed up to it. It’s the step in the right direction and it’s something we need to do. Since that and the start of the Women’s Super League, it’s a lot more visible I think, in social media and on the news as well. So, it has been a really big difference, between like 5 years ago and today. I mean, you’ve seen here today, you’ve got cheerleaders out there, you’ve got the big flags out and you’ve got the smaller girls’ teams coming out with the players and stuff. There’s a massive difference and it’s really starting to drum up a lot of support.