SAINTS Women suffered last minute heartbreak in both the Super League play-offs and Challenge Cup Semi-finals in 2019, writes Harry Ewbank.

But St Helens forward and current England captain Emily Rudge, 28, believes her team will come back stronger when the new season can eventually get underway.

In 2008, a 16-year-old Rudge wouldn’t in her wildest dreams have been able to envisage the path she has been on to help towards putting women’s rugby league on the map in England.

As an amateur at Thatto Heath Crusaders – the largest amateur club in the country at present – Rudge received a shock England call-up ahead of the World Cup in Australia, which was to be the first time the nation had solely competed having previously entered as Great Britain in 2000 and 2004.

Twelve years on and she is England captain, married to former captain Gemma Walsh, and is an integral part of building towards a home World Cup in 2021.

But for now, the St Helens star is fully concentrated on preparing for a vital season that for all her hard work has no new starting date having been suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent UK lockdown.

“The most disappointing part of it is I thought that we were in a really good place ahead of the season,” said Rudge, who was hoping for a return to action on March 22 in an opening weekend encounter against the League Leaders' Shield holders Castleford Tigers.

“We had a brilliant pre-season and we were going really well, though everyone’s still working hard at home and keeping up with their fitness so I do feel good about this year.”

The lockdown has forced a different routine for all sportsmen and women, and Rudge and wife Gemma have relished getting stuck in.

“As a team we get sent through regular strength and conditioning updates and we’ve done a few sessions on Zoom so we can all workout together,” she said.

“Obviously that can’t be done for all forms of exercise that we do, but we’ve embraced it and been creative.”

And the pair have taken it in their stride by fixing up a pull up bar across their shed as well as lifting garden ornaments and pots.

It also takes mental strength for a team to be successful, and after Saints struggled with the weight on their shoulders in the vital moments last season Rudge truly believes that they have enough to lift themselves up and go one better this time around.

“It was gutting last year and we maybe didn’t manage ourselves enough in the big games but I think we have learnt a lot from that,” she said.

Despite knockbacks in the last 12 months, there has also been a great deal to be positive about as the England star gained many plaudits.

Rudge received a nomination for the Women of Steel Award, which was won by Leeds Rhinos' Courtney Hill, while also putting in a heroic captain’s shift in England’s one win in Papua New Guinea in a series drawn 1-1.

The first Test victory saw Rudge set an England Women’s record in scoring four tries in a 24-10 win.

The tour included the squad being paid while away on the trip, and despite the difficulties facing rugby league at the moment she is quietly confident of an affluent future for the sport she has grown up with.

“Building towards the 2021 World Cup is the next big focus,” said Warrington-born Rudge.

“If we get the best possible England squad together and if we are successful it would give the women’s game a huge boost and I’d like to see women getting paid at club level or for England.

“Getting paid on last year’s tour with England was a step in the right direction and I think it would improve the quality in the sport and there would be a lot more talent to select from.”

For now, the hard slog in a national pandemic goes on for the Saints squad, who are balancing training with work.

Rudge is a PE teacher – currently going into work on a two-week rotary basis – and the squad including NHS workers, a police officer, supermarket workers and youth carers are certainly doing their bit in tackling an unprecedented period both on and off the field.