Rugby League Ireland Women’s Captain, Philippa Birchall, sat down to discuss her Rugby League career, life in green so far and the progress of the team after a successful first 12-months in competition.
On getting into Rugby League she said: “I started playing Rugby at 9-years old at Thatto Heath Crusaders and I was in the U12s team all the way to U14s and U16s and within that time I’d played for Lancashire three times and captained them twice. When I couldn’t go any further I had to go into open age when I was 16, my first game was against Bradford Bulls and then I spent two years at Thatto Heath, we then got moved onto St Helens which was a bit surreal, as a girl you always think you’ll never be able to play for your hometown Club but when we got that opportunity it was quite heart stopping to say yes.
Everything has gone from there, I got selected for Ireland and asked to be vice-Captain for the inaugural game against Wales last year and have now been asked to be Captain – it’s been a really positive journey so far. There’s been ups and downs, but mostly it’s been highs so it’s really good.”
Birchall was named Captain earlier in 2022, prior to the Women’s European Championship B game over the water in Italy: “It was a bit mad really, I actually thought he [Head Coach John Whalley] was joking with me, as he does. I was proud more than anything to be named as Captain and when he asked me, I had everything organised for the Italy game and then I got injured playing for St Helens against York, so I couldn’t go out there and Captain the side. It was one of those moments where you appreciate everything that you do within rugby and appreciate stepping onto the field because when you get an injury you can’t do anything about it.”
The Women’s side did get the win in Udine, and despite being in the UK recovering from injury, Birchall was still pleased for the squad: “I was buzzing for the girls, Clodagh stepped up to be Captain for that game and she did a great job and we came away with the win but I was proud and hopefully I’ll get the opportunity against Wales in Ireland in October.”
Talking about the injury which denied her the opportunity to Captain the side in Italy, she added: “It was a bit of a freak injury, I was in a tackle and it collapsed on my leg and straight away I felt the pain. The first thing I thought about was Ireland, I was supposed to be playing and flying out and it was just a whirlwind of emotions because in one mind I was thinking I can push and play, but the other half of me thought I’ve got to think about my health first and the long term. It was a hard conversation to have with John and make that decision that I couldn’t come to Italy and it was hard to tell the girls too but I think honesty in a team sport is vital.
“It was hard but I knew there was a road to recovery and after all the scans, it didn’t turn out to be as bad as we initially thought. I’m now fully fit and back playing for my Club St Helens which is a real benefit for me leading into the European championships and helping the team to hopefully go and get the win against Wales and then Canada in the World Cup warm up fixture.”
It has been just over 12-months since the Rugby League Ireland Women’s squad was formed, Birchall is pleased to see a huge progression in such a short space of time: “It’s a massive progression, any training session where you come together as a squad is beneficial for everyone. When you’re doing separate sessions, the girls in Ireland doing a session, the girls in the UK doing a session then coming together for an hour before a match, I don’t think it’s a great benefit. I think John [Whalley] has took it upon himself, and he’s doing a great job in terms of maximising our preparations for the International games.”
She added: “We went over to Ireland a few weeks ago, and came together again in the UK last weekend and everyone bonded together, the team has a smooth transition in everything that we do so I feel like we’re more of a team than we ever have been, even in just that short space of time.”
Finally, following the announcement that Ireland will play Canada in a friendly test match in October, she said: “It’ll be a great experience, coming up against one of the Top 10 sides for Rugby League in the World is a huge experience and something we will learn from. We’ll do what we can preparation wise but I feel like Canada will come to win, they aren’t coming for a warm-up game, it’s a test match at the end of the day and I’m sure both sides will be 100% ready.
“Hopefully we can get a big crowd down, as much as people will be coming to watch Canada, they’ll be coming to watch us play too. We’re really excited as a squad and I don’t see why we couldn’t test Canada and potential get a win from that game. It’s an exciting journey and one we can’t wait to go on.”