St Helens RL ace Emily Rudge flies flag for the women's game

Emily Rudge is tackled during the 2017 Women's Rugby League World Cup match between England and Papua New Guinea
Emily Rudge is tackled during the 2017 Women's Rugby League World Cup match between England and Papua New Guinea

Emily Rudge has proudly flown the flag for women's rugby league for the last 17 years, although for the first two the boys in the opposition team had no idea she was a girl.

It was not a case of deliberately concealing her appearance, simply an illustration of the dearth of females playing the game at the time.

"For two years I was the only girl on a boys' team in Warrington and I think I was the only girl in the league at that time," said the England women's captain.

"I wore a scrum hat at that age and because I tucked my ponytail into it, I don't think anyone even knew I was a girl.

"It was only at the end of the game when I'd take my scrum cap off and they'd go 'oh my God, their number 10 is a girl!'."

A second row or loose forward, Rudge is now something of a veteran, having played in the last three World Cups.

"I started at primary school basically because the team needed a couple of girls to play tag rugby in a mixed gender competition," she recalls.

"I really, really enjoyed it and got an award in my first game so my dad then took me to a full-contact rugby boys team at Warrington when I was 11 and I loved it even more and I've played ever since."

Rudge comes from a family of Warrington fans but ended up signing for St Helens because they were the nearest club to have a women's team.

That has all changed now with the formation of a Women's Super League - Saints open their 2019 campaign against 2018 reigning champions Wigan on Sunday, April 7 - and Rudge believes the advent of the first professional is not far away.

"It's grown more in the last 18 months than it had in the previous 15 years when I started playing," said Rudge, whose younger sister Isabelle also plays for St Helens.

"It's taken really off since the last World Cup and it's about to get even bigger and better.

"Full-time professionalism has already reached Australia and it's definitely something that would make a massive difference to the game over here.

"In order to compete on that world stage, it would be a step in the right direction to make some women, if not the whole England squad, semi-professional or professional."

A PE teacher at a St Helens high school, Rudge took three and a half weeks unpaid leave to play in Australia in 2017 when she was named England's best and fairest player.

She has been something of a regular since being called into the England squad at 16 after being spotted playing for Lancashire and is now hoping to secure a place on the proposed tour to the Southern Hemisphere at the end of this season, with the 2021 World Cup, being played alongside the men's event in the UK, looming into sight.

"When the venues got announced it was such amazing news to hear we'd be playing at Anfield and big stadiums for the first time," Rudge added.

"It really heightens the profile of women's rugby league."