Jodie Cunningham interview: ‘Everybody gets criticised but female pundits get a hefty share’

Jodie Cunningham – Jodie Cunningham interview: 'Everybody gets criticised but female pundits get a hefty share'
Jodie Cunningham is a six-time Challenge Cup winner, Grand Final winner and a League Leaders' Shield winner - Getty Images/Jess Hornby

When St Helens and England rugby league captain Jodie Cunningham was asked to be a regular pundit on Sky Sports’ expanded coverage of the men’s Super League this ­season, she was wracked with apprehension.

Abuse of female pundits is sadly commonplace across sport and ­former player Danika Priim, also a pundit, recently revealed she received vile messages on social media from people saying they wanted to slit her throat because she was perceived to dislike their team.

“When I got the phone call from Sky, I was like an excited little schoolgirl and couldn’t believe it,” says Cunningham. “Then the doubts started to creep in and I was thinking, ‘I don’t know whether I’m good enough or can take some of the criticism’.

“Everybody gets criticised but female pundits and commentators get a hefty share of it. I had quite a lot of doubts and different things running through my head – and whether people would think I’m more focused on punditry than actually playing.”

Still, she accepted the role, despite having faced sniping on social media after previous television appearances. Warrington-born Cunningham adds: “Some of the comments were that I couldn’t go on the field and take 10 hits from a men’s player and therefore they won’t value my opinion. But I can’t do that because we are built differently to the men.

Jodie Cunningham – Jodie Cunningham interview: 'Everybody gets criticised but female pundits get a hefty share'
Jodie Cunningham has offered insight and analysis across both men's and women's Super League this season - Getty Images/Jess Hornby

“Some incredible things happen in the women’s game and it is still fast, aggressive and skilful, with some incredible athletes playing it. As women we’re smaller but we play on the same size pitch as men, so there are often bigger spaces and more long-range tries, which makes it very exciting to watch.

“There is always pushback for change, but having more female pundits helps gets the women’s game more widely accepted. Once people see what we have to offer, they’re really impressed by it.”

Cunningham, a rugged, skilful loose forward, has been around the women’s game since childhood and in many ways has come to symbolise its rise in recent years. She has played in three World Cups and, having joined the newly formed St Helens women’s side in 2018, ­Cunningham has helped her team to numerous trophies.

Saints, Leeds Rhinos and York Valkyrie are the eminent forces in Women’s Super League, which kicks off this week and has been expanded to eight teams.

Cunningham’s team – coached by former St Helens half-back Matty Smith – play their home games at the club’s Totally Wicked Stadium, train at the same venue as the men and have joined Leeds and York in paying their players.

“It’s not even just with regards to payments being introduced; I think clubs are investing more generally in the teams,” says 32-year-old ­Cunningham. “The more the RFL [Rugby Football League] and the competition professionalises, the bigger the prizes at the end of it, whether that be a Challenge Cup final at Wembley or a Women’s Super League Grand Final.

“The opportunities are just so big now, so everyone wants to gain an advantage. I think everyone’s initial instinct is to view being a full-time sport as the ultimate goal for women’s rugby league. But we need to provide more time for our players and that might be a semi-professional environment with different elements to it. There might be a different type of international tournament which provides a short-term boost to being able to earn money that way.

“If we got to being full-time that would be outstanding. But what we have to look at is a semi-professional model which is sustainable, where the girls have the opportunity to be the best athlete they can.”

Cunningham was appointed as the RFL’s national women’s and girls’ development manager in November 2021 before taking up a new post with St Helens as head of women’s pathways and performance earlier this year. Post-playing, she could move into coaching and she undoubtedly has one of the biggest profiles in the sport.

She says: “I don’t see myself in any way as an individual driving force for the sport. But rugby league has given me a lot – I love it and I live it and breathe it, so I will always continue to give back in any way I can. Hopefully by doing that, it does showcase to young girls and women that there is a space for you in rugby league, whether that’s working in the sport, doing media work or playing.