Nikki Carter has always been a Hull FC fan, however, growing up girls were not allowed to play. She was in sport all her life and excelled at the hammer in athletics. When the opportunity came for her to play, she grabbed it with both hands. Julia Lee catches up with Nikki about her days with Hull Vixens and her role as team manager for the first GB Lioness’s Tour to Australian 1996
My husband played rugby league and I’d always played sport all my life, but girls weren’t allowed to play. Girls weren’t allowed to play rugby at school, so I played netball, I played hockey, I played tennis. I avoided gymnastics cos I weren’t really built for that and then when I got with my husband, he played rugby league and I used to go and watch avidly. I was a Hull FC fan all of my life. And then my husband saw an advert in the Hull Daily Mail that said there was a women’s team starting. So, I went along and tried out for that and never looked back!
Joined the Vixens, played my first game within about three or four weeks, up in Carlisle. It’ll have been 1991. My eldest daughter Becky was 18 months old. We’d just bought a house in Anlaby and it was bare brick – we’d stripped it out – and he came back home that night and said there’s this advert and there I was at Costello within a couple of weeks of that and playing. So yeah, that’s how I got into it.
Hull Vixens was fun. Lively. Friendship. Three things that strike you as being a part of that team at that time. There was a bunch of women from all walks of life that just enjoyed rugby league. We had our challenges – trying to get kit, trying to get sponsors – we had a few different people sponsored over the years. We had a pub sponsored us, the Brickmakers Arms I think it was, we had a dentist sponsor us one year. Just connections, basically, between the team. We paid our transport, I used to drive the minibus. We had to hire a minibus, we used to, from the council. We had to drive the minibus up to Carlisle to play rugby. I remember one year when London came up to play a game against us and they actually came in an old ambulance. It was really just bizarre really. We went to all of these different places – really, really deprived areas. When you played on the pitches, you swept the pitch before you started, you know, to clean the pitch, made sure you got the glass off it before you started, but it was such good fun and it was played in a really good spirit. It was a family event. My father in law – he’s still alive now, 92 – he used to come to all the games, he ran the line for us, he helped us do various things for the club. My mother in law did sandwiches for after the game. It was just a real family event. And then my youngest one was born while I was playing rugby – I was pregnant, I got pregnant with my youngest daughter. They used to run up and down the touch line with their little Aran cardigans. Most people remember them as that – these two little blonde girls running up and down the touchline with an Aran cardigan. Which they both now cringe at, but… Especially because at one point they did a TV programme on Hull Vixens and they’re actually – Becky, my eldest daughter, is actually on that. She’s mortified by it. It became a family event because my husband at the time, he became coach, he started coaching with us as well, so it just became a real family thing. But it was such good fun. Friendships for life – we’re still friends, best friends, with some of the people I played with. Those friendships are still here now, 25, 30 years down the line. Rugby league, it offers you an awful lot. I’d always done athletics as an individual sport and rugby league was a first, outside of school, into a team sport and it was strange for me because I was suddenly surrounded by everybody and it was a team effort and it had always been about my own individual effort before. That was a bit of new one for me, but… I’d been in sport all my life, so it was not a new thing for me, but it was definitely a new experience and I think team sport gives you that, it’s very, a very different experience. But it was a challenge, you know, women in sport, women in life, we’re… We’ve moved on somewhere but we’re nowhere near where we need to be, but… I think in terms of – I worked in the care industry, I worked in a female-dominated place and then I played rugby and it was female, but it was… Women in sport didn’t get the recognition they needed and deserved. Often, we got classed… I remember regularly being saying oh, you must be a lesbian because you play rugby league – cos you play rugby, you must be a lesbian. No, that’s not the case, but you got that label. You got that label, you got that challenge, you know, everywhere you went, really. It is quite refreshing that women don’t always have to have that label any more and don’t get as much challenge as we did. But it’s still a challenge for any amateur sport, isn’t it, to get funding and to get a team off the ground and keep a team off the ground. We used to have some real good fun at Vixens with our treasurer, Jan, and the fact that she had her tin and she never let any money out of it. But that team spirit, that whole, you know, people from all walks of life coming together to run a team and taking on… It wasn’t just like it were a local league, you know, just turn up on a Sunday morning – it was a whole day event because you went out at half six in the morning to get over to wherever you were going to for an 11 o’clock kick off. It was quite nice if you were only playing at Castleford, it were only an hour down the road, but if you were playing at Barrow… I remember games at Barrow being called off because players and the referee had hypothermia, you know, it was that cold. And you had – I remember Donna Parker, a real memory of her, and it was freezing cold at Barrow and the wind used to come straight off the top of the sand dunes, cos it was right on the sea, the pitch. And the snow was coming and the wind was blowing straight at us and Donna Parker put the black bag out of the kit bag – you know, the black sack you put in your bin, she actually put her head and two hands inside it and wore it in the game and she was the only one who didn’t have hypothermia by the end. The referee couldn’t blow his whistle in the end, it was that cold, so we had to stop the game.
We played in some real places, you know… We never played in any. We played on the Boulevard once, but we didn’t really play in any nice places. We had probably the best – in Northern Foods club – one of the best grounds in the League. But we played in some real places that…
They played their because I think it’s because that’s where they were accepted. In some cases, it was the only place they could play. I remember Hunslet, we got changed in a cellar of a pub and they had a bath in the cellar of the pub. And we had to walk through a housing estate to actually get to the pitch. I think the reason people played on those is because it was the only place you could play. It was a park pitch, or it was a club, it would be a really traditional rugby league club if it wasn’t a park pitch. So, you know, the Red Hills of the world where, in Castleford, they’d have junior teams and teams of all ages and it was in a deprived area, but that was the community hub. That’s where the teams played because that’s where they were accepted and where they were developing. They were mums of the kids that played in the junior teams and quite a few players came, when you met them, they’d watched it all of their lives, they’d watched their kids growing up, getting their kids to play and then decided to have a go themselves. You sort of got different aspects of it, really. You had other people who were absolute sporties – they’d always done sport all their lives. So, I remember some of the Wakefield players played handball at a high level and things like that and then turned to rugby league as well. So, you had people who’d done sport at a high level – I’d done athletics before I did rugby. So, you had people who had a real sporty background and you had the mums of the world who’d got into sport because their children had started in sport or whatever, so you had a real mix of people. And mix of walks of life – careers. I worked in the care industry, but we had bank managers, we had police officers, we had people who worked in the food factory. You had people of all walks of life who lived by rugby league, really. So. it was good fun, good fun.
I think for me probably one of the most memorable games would be our cup final up at Dewsbury. That was a really good… We ran Wakefield very close as a final and that was unusual.
There’s memorable games for different reasons. There’s obviously memorable games that you’ve got for your own personal performance, but as I team I think some of .. I think the Yorkshire Cup Final was one of the most memorable. And that’s because as a team we gelled, we played well and in doing that we came very close… We didn’t ever win it, but we actually came close and that was unusual at that point. Wakefield were the top team and they were very rarely beaten.
From other teams, I think Lisa Mackintosh would be the stand out for me. I always had a battle with Lisa when we played, and it was really good fun. We played hard but we also got on really well off the pitch as well. Her talent, her ability to play and read the game was fantastic. You can’t say, with women’s rugby league, and not talk about Brenda, can you? Brenda Dobek was a fantastic player and she was so elusive, that her skill set was… she could turn on a tanner and you’d turn and never quite grab hold of her. From the Vixens I’d say probably Donna Parker because of her ability to read the game, to sell a dummy to anybody – including her own players – but also because of her character. She’s such a big character on the pitch and she has the ability to wind others up where nobody else can – and she still does. Despite not playing any more, she still has that same character. But her ability on the pitch was always brilliant in terms of her ability to read the game and create an opportunity.
The first annual awards we went to would have been in Morecambe and that was a messy event. There was an awful lot of alcohol consumed and we went and stayed in Morecambe for the weekend. But yeah, it was very, very messy. Playing football on the beach when we were really, really hung over wasn’t exactly ideal, but… Yeah, most people were hung over. We always used to get together the Sunday morning after the event and play football at half ten in the morning on the beach and it was just anybody who could get up, got up and played. And it was people from all teams. It was just a really, really good event. Real good fun.
And then many, many years of going to Blackpool after that. I can remember being out with – Stevo came out with us one year. I’ve no idea how much red wine we drank, but it was significant, and he was just good fun. He came out with the girls after the event and was out probably till 5 or 6 in the morning. Just good fun. I enjoyed every minute of it. And some real good memories and really good friendships – lifelong friendships. Out of other teams as well. I remember going to … I think one of my best memories of rugby league will be, having done the ’96 tour, we came back, and we were nominated for the Times Sportsmen of the Year awards and we had to go down to London with our Great Britain suits and we got into the… It was in the financial district in London and we were in this really old building and we got to the top of the stairs and the concierge at the top announced to the whole room that the Great Britain women’s rugby league team were here and everyone turned round and applauded and it was… We were sat in there with Paula Radcliffe and you name it, women’s sport, were in there and to be part of that and to be recognised for our achievement in that was fantastic. It was a dinner and it was speeches and Sue Barker was hosting it and it was just a really good memory. To be there and realise that you’re there because of what you achieved was really powerful.
For the Vixens I did a lot of the organising. I organised all the buses, I did all the events, you have to raise money. I did a lot of that side of it. Which, you know, we had social events to do and we.. I tried to get sponsorship because I had connections in different things, that meant that I could access sponsorship from different people or cajole people to sponsor us. I’m not sure they ever particularly wanted to, it was just a case of they had to because I said so.
I did a lot of organising of the social side and the events that we did and the travel to and from games and organised the kit washing. I didn’t wash it myself, but I used to drop it off at the launderette and pick it back up again. So yeah, I did a lot of that kind of thing.
The Great Britain team had a tour manager for the tour who had previously done tour management before and a number of weeks on – I can’t remember exactly, but I think about 10 or 12 weeks before they were due to fly out – the tour manager was no longer, and they needed a tour manager. And I had a good relationship with Anne Thompson who was heavily involved in Great Britain at the time and with Jackie Sheldon and they came and asked me if I would consider taking it on. So, I went to go and ask work if I could take 4 weeks off. So that’s how I became involved in it. It was all-consuming, a full time job for probably the 12 weeks before we went: we didn’t have a kit, we didn’t have any suits, we didn’t have any bank account set up and unlike now where you can just set a bank account up and you can get it fairly quickly, we even had a bank manager I was talking to who was trying to get us a bank account. But we didn’t have one. So, we went to Australia. I went with a briefcase with tens of thousands of dollars in cash and travellers’ cheques, so the whole tour was run on that. We had no way of getting banking out in Australia, so I literally carried the money around with me and it was chained to me and every minute – if went to the toilet, it had to go with me. I had this briefcase and it had every bit of money that we had. Again, challenges, but a great experience. 1996.
We needed another £29,000 when I took over, so I think the whole tour cost, I think, 50-odd grand. Which in ’96 is a lot of money. So, what we did was, we were short of money, we didn’t have enough money, so we talked to all the players: each player had to raise £1000 in order to get us there. We did a couple of events – Castleford were really helpful, and they did an event up at Castleford and we raised money through that. We got various items donated and did an auction and we did bus stops and players were taking bus stops off to their families and friends, constantly taking cash out of their pockets. In terms of the kit, I think it was Paula Clarke came through in the end, a physiotherapist – her clinic sponsored the kit. Because up to the point when I joined, we didn’t have a kit, we didn’t have a sponsor, we – I think we got about £1000 from the RFL to support us, which didn’t even buy a kit at that point. There wasn’t enough kit for us to go with. We went to a company in Leeds and said this is how much we’ve got, this is how much time we’ve got, and can you do this for us? And so, within a very short space of time we were taking everybody’s measurements and getting suits and I think the suits arrived about 3 days before we flew. If they didn’t fit you, it was tough, because you weren’t going to get them altered before we got there. That’s how we managed to get enough money in the end to get there, and then we got – there was one of the guys in Australia who was helping organise events and things and organised the tour. He organised all our hotels for us and when we was in Sydney, we’d done the first test and we were about to… For some reason they’d organised a bus for us to go to Brisbane instead of flying and it was like 5 hours’ drive or something. [12 hours I think] We got outside, I walked outside the hotel – we’ve got 32 players, 32 people with us on tour, we’ve got all the kit bags, we’ve got the medical trunk, we’ve got all of the sheer volume of luggage that it takes to take people on tour for 4 weeks anyway and we walked up and there was a 32-seater coach. With no boot. And I was like, “We can’t go in that. There’s no chance we can go in that”. We just wouldn’t fit in it. Eventually I found a company that would… There’s the players, all stood by the roadside, thinking what’re we going to do? I managed to get a bus company in Sydney that gave us a bus to take us to Brisbane and we got to Brisbane and it was like, we can’t do that journey again. Cos we were going to Canberra after that and it was no, we’re not going to go by bus. So I think it was me and Paula Clark ended up at the airport, going, “Can you find us a flight?”. And we ended up getting a flight down to Canberra. It was just, you get there in the end, you manage it, you do it. But at the time it was challenging. And there I was saying, I can pay you in cash – I’ll just open my bank. I’d open it up and there was travellers’ cheques and cash. I’m giving the players so much a day for their meals and things because nobody had organised a meal package with the hotel. We just had so little time before we went, it was case of having to do a lot of things when we got out there. But we were really well treated – we were fabulously treated by Brisbane Broncos. They hosted us really, really well. While we were in Brisbane, we got all sorts – the whole squad got everything they needed, they got kit given that was players only kit for Brisbane Broncos, they really looked after us. They took us to players only barbecues, we joined in training sessions with them, we did all sorts of stuff like that and it was really, really fantastic. It was a fantastic tour – and to win as well makes it even better. 2-1.
Yeah, I think it is the only time Great Britain has beaten the Aussies. And of course, we’d done something the men hadn’t done for a long time as well, so that was even better. We won in Sydney, we lost in Brisbane I think it was and we won in Canberra. Or the other way around maybe. But yeah, it was quite good. One of the things that strikes me is I remember having to teach some of the players how, what the national anthem was. When we got to Canberra for the first test, I was like, “You don’t know the national anthem?”. I was really shocked by that, but of course, not everybody does. So, I had to teach the national anthem. I wasn’t expecting that to be in my duties! But yeah, it was good, good fun. Hard work, and I don’t think we ever probably got the recognition for what we achieved…
The one thing that… They asked us to go to Wembley and tour the pitch at half time with the shield. But what came with that was what I think was a really humiliating experience, because we had to be dressed in white jogging suits, with white sweatshirts and white bottoms and go on the pitch and parade a flag. So, we went there as the women’s Great Britain team and what a fantastic job these people have done and recognise us for it – and we were part of the pre-match entertainment. And for me that was… We shouldn’t have been there in white suits. I’ve got to say I was lucky, because I didn’t have to do it and I didn’t go on the pitch with it, because I was able to stand at the side and I didn’t wear the white tracksuit. Apart from anything else, it wouldn’t have suited me. But I think that for me was a really disappointing experience. Having been celebrated for being a successful sportsperson, it was really disappointing to find that our own sport treat us in that way. That did disappoint me. So that was sort of the end of it then – that was the end of our experience. It would have been much nicer if we’d have been there in our Great Britain suits, parading at half time with our trophy, without that other bit of the experience.
And again, it was self-funded. Come and do this – but self-fund it. And you know, for some people, funding a weekend away at Wembley is a massive amount of money and some people couldn’t afford to do it. So yeah, just a disappointing end. The tour itself, in Australia, it was very… There was media coverage, there was television coverage, the games were played on TV, there was interviews with players, with captains and stuff on TV. So, it was a very different experience. Their female sport was seen in a very different way, I think, at that time. So, it was a very different experience when you come home, and you get that from your own body…
Overall, in rugby? I think my highlights for the tour would be that final game in Sydney. When you’ve got your captain don’t even remember getting the trophy. She got knocked unconscious in the game, it was a really tight game, and everybody was absolutely, just so willing to win it, that end minute when that whistle blew, I think that for me was just a fabulous experience, fabulous excitement. And it was like a privilege to be a part of and you’re proud to be part of it. For the Vixens, I think the highlight in that would be probably playing in that cup final that I talked about. That for me was a really good experience. For me personally I had a really good game in that as well. I think that would be my highlight. But so many, really…