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From Leeds Beckett to England Rugby League

Hi, I’m Leah – a postgraduate student, studying Sport & Exercise Physiology here at Leeds Beckett University. In this blog I’m going to talk about my journey from having never played rugby before to joining the women’s rugby team at university to representing the England Women’s Rugby League after just two years playing rugby league!

Close up of Rugby ball on field

Try something new, you never know what it may lead to

Joining a sports team at university has provided me with so many opportunities. I’ve represented my country, travelled across the world, I’ve competed against the top three countries in the world and made some amazing friends for life.

My journey started when I signed up for a sports team in Freshers’ Week. I have always been a sporty person and I knew I wanted to do a sport in first year. At this point rugby wasn’t even on my radar and so I joined the gymnastics team. I really liked it, but the environment wasn’t exactly what I was looking for. So, when I went into second year, I decided to try something new and so I signed up to the Women’s Rugby team. I was really nervous, but I dragged my house mate with me for support as I didn’t know what it was going to be like having never played before. I didn’t know anyone else when I signed up, but I instantly made friends with everyone. It was such a friendly environment and one of the first girls I met, I’m still best friends with now.

Leah playing rugby

Making friends through sport

Being part of a university team is great! You instantly have so many best friends and when you’re on the pitch together you just want to win for each other and it’s a different type of bond than what you have with any other students.

Playing rugby at university has provided me with some of my closest friends as I now live with two other girls that I play alongside and the friendship we all have is amazing. I’m so glad that I joined a team at uni. It’s the best decision you can ever make!

England Womens Rugby League team photo

Opportunities university sport has provided

I am one of three Leeds Beckett University students who had the opportunity to represent the England Women’s Rugby League team in Papua New Guinea and Australia.

My first involvement with England saw me take part in the first ever Downer Rugby League World Cup Nines competition in Australia, which was also the first time the women’s team was paid the same participation fees as the men’s for a competition.

None of us playing for England had ever played Nines before, never mind representing our country in a recognised World Cup tournament on tour in Australia – it was a huge challenge for all of us. Our first game against Papua New Guinea in the tournament was a really good experience. We managed to beat them 26-10 and I scored my first try for England. We lost our following two games to Australia and New Zealand, who are ranked as the best teams in the world, but it was a great experience to challenge ourselves and build on our skills against these top teams.

Once the dust had settled on an incredible experience playing in the Nines, it was time for a quick trip back to the UK before heading back out to Australia again less than a week later for our two game tour of Papua New Guinea.

Leeds Beckett Student Leah Burke diving for the rugby ball

Our next challenge

After the short turnaround from getting off the plane in England, me and the team were back on our return flight to Australia, this time heading over to Brisbane.

The flight to Australia made it hard for my body clock to adjust. My body just didn’t know or understand what time it was when we landed, and it probably took the best part of a week to acclimatise.

The training was hard. When you play for your Super League club you are used to only training a few times a week, in a lot cooler temperatures, but with England we were training most days so the extra intense training sessions plus the scorching weather in Brisbane certainly tested us as a group.

The experience of Brisbane, being in and around the NRL team Brisbane Broncos’ historic training ground at Red Hill was incredible and gave us the best platform for the challenge we were going to face in PNG.

Experiencing new cultures in Papa New Guinea

When we arrived in Gorotka, I had never experienced an atmosphere like it. We had a good idea what rugby league was like over there, the residents of Papua New Guinea treat it like it’s their religion and it’s their national sport, but the reception was insane.

When we got off the coach, we were greeted by hundreds of locals, people dressed in tribal clothing, there was national and local tv stations there plus local politicians, it was just the most insane welcome I’ve ever been a part of.

The volumes of people that came to see us throughout the entire week, was incredible. Whenever we got a team bus anywhere or trained there would be people flooding round to come and see us, wanting to take our picture or get our autograph. The reception we got was as if the Queen was visiting, it was crazy. And to round things off we got the win against PNG on the pitch too.

England Womens Rugby team in Papa New Guinea

Looking forward to the future

We had a good week of training before the second test. We spoke all week about not taking Papua New Guinea for granted, the impact the bumper crowd at Port Moresby would have on them, especially with the men’s team taking on Great Britain as part of a double header and how we wanted to finish the tour with a whitewash.

The game, though, didn’t go to plan. I am proud to have represented England and to have been part of such a special tour. To be part of the first travelling women’s team to take part in a Test Series in PNG is an experience I won’t forget. If I had to sum up the entire experience in one word, it would be - unbelievable. The experience was so surreal, every day you would wake up pinching yourself and the reception for the team was crazy. I loved every minute of the tour and I can’t wait for the new Super League season to start with St Helens and pull on the England jersey again in 2020.

None of this would have happened if I hadn’t stepped out of my comfort zone and tried a new sport at Leeds Beckett. So, give it a go and see what happens.

England Women Rugby Tackle

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