Amy Hardcastle: England rugby league centre swaps NHS frontline for Test match in France

Venue: Stade Gilbert Brutus, Perpignan Date: Saturday, 23 October Kick-off: 12:30 BST women, 14:30 BST men
Coverage: Live on BBC Two (women’s) and BBC One (men’s), with text commentary on the BBC Sport website and app.

If anyone knows what pressure means going into England women’s rugby league Test match with France at the weekend, then it is St Helens centre Amy Hardcastle.

Hardcastle is frontline NHS staff, working in Accident & Emergency at Calderdale Royal Hospital in Halifax throughout the pandemic. That has been real pressure.

As such, running out onto the field in Perpignan, representing your country in a sport you love, will be a welcome distraction.

“It’s still quite demanding,” Hardcastle told the BBC Rugby League podcast. “It’s the season for kids being poorly, there’s a bug going round and we’re still getting Covid patients through.

“Staff are struggling mentally, but you’ve got to crack on. Work pays the bills and fortunately I’m still in a job.”

In fact, the only thing that does bother Hardcastle, is getting there.

“I’ve had my [fear of flying] therapy a few weeks ago, but I’m not sure it’s worked,” she laughed. “I’m not looking forward to it, I’m not going to lie.

“I’ll probably be holding Craig’s [Richards – coach] hand or something on the flight.”

Another taste of elite sport

Amy Hardcastle
Amy Hardcastle and St Helens team-mate Emily Rudge are both in the England squad

The preparations for Saturday’s game are being taken equally seriously for both men’s and women’s sides going into the match – as the two groups will travel together to the south of France.

It means an early start for the women, who unlike their male counterparts are largely full-time workers and juggling jobs with their playing commitments.

Clubs travelling to Catalans in the men’s Super League have started travelling there and back in a day to reduce costs and avoid the distractions of a few days in holiday country.

“We’ve got a private flight together,” Hardcastle added.

“We get up at 04:30 BST, ready for testing at 05:00 and then once we’ve been tested we get our breakfast bags and head to the airport, we’ll fly at seven-ish.

“The hardest bit will be when we arrive there and have that bit of waiting around. We can’t waste any energy thinking about it.”

While the women’s game continues to make huge strides, such as a record attendance at the Grand Final between St Helens and Leeds earlier this month, there is still a wide disparity between men’s and women’s rugby league in terms of funding and structure.

Hardcastle sees a longer-term view for the women’s game, with the eventual aim of bringing it to an equal plain as the depth of the league and participations swells.

“I’m not envious,” she said. “I think it’s great what the lads do and they’ve worked incredibly hard at it from a young age.

“At the end of the day, the men bring the money in. Of course I’d love to get paid to play, but I’ve always worked so that’s me.

“In the future, it would be great for females to get that opportunity, but I’m happy with what I do.”

Bonds forged over lockdown times

England women
England brings both Leeds and St Helens rivals together

One of the strengths of Craig Richards’ side is the togetherness and unity they forged during the tough times of lockdown last year, when elite sports status gave the group a rare chance to come together.

While those friendships were tested in the recent Grand Final between Saints and Leeds, the familiarity of the past 12 months means rivalries can be put to one side come England time.

“There’s a lot of internationals in both teams and we’ve spent so much time together this year because it was supposed to be a World Cup year,” Cunningham told BBC Sport in the build up to the Grand Final, won by Saints.

“We’ve had more time together as an England squad this year than we ever have and it’s been brilliant – you’ve seen the progress we’ve made as a group.

“It’s only going to help the game that we’ve got so many players involved in big occasions like the Grand Final, that helps and translates when we get to the international stage.”

The big stage

With a sell-out crowd expected at Stade Gilbert Brutus for the double-header, England women will get a suitable backdrop to their Test against France.

Having tasted the unique atmosphere of Port Moresby in 2019, and having recorded a record gate for the recent Super League decider, Hardcastle is only inspired by the prospect.

“The Grand Final we played we had an immense crowd there for the women’s game,” she said.

“To be honest, having the crowd there makes you play better.”


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