Having announced her retirement from playing at the end of June 2020, we caught up with Bethany after 13 years of wonderful, loyal service to her club.
Bethany, why did the 17-year-old with the spiky hair decide to come down to Waterloo to play a sport that she knew nothing about?
Oh my – that spiky hair – I blame it on my youth. I had played rugby league from the age of seven and played senior rugby league at 16 and I guess at that time there were not a lot of opportunities out there within rugby league, so I thought, why not try a new challenge? I saw that women’s rugby union was up and coming, certainly getting more established and I thought why not give it a go. Waterloo was one of the most local clubs, I knew that it had a lot of history and they had a range of teams, including women’s – under 18s and under 15s, so I just went down not knowing anything about rugby union, the laws. It was a test at first but luckily there a few transferable skills – for me, the biggest one was kicking because I was a decent kicker, especially for my age and I think that set me apart and stood me in good stead for a rugby union career.
What other differences did you find when you went over to ‘the other side’?
I was a bit difficult at first because I had done the transition from junior to senior rugby – I had been playing senior rugby league for 12 months, then I dropped down into the age groups which was beneficial at the time because I was still growing and it was a big jump going from junior to senior rugby. It was nice to take a step back and work on my skills with people of my own age.
Unlike I guess a lot of young women you had a good ten-year start on, for example tackling and I have often thought that the hits they put in in rugby league are bigger than rugby union.
Yes, I did. When I started playing at the age of seven, I was playing against the boys up until the age of 11 or 12 when we have to split. You just get thrown into it straight away – full contact from the age of seven.
That must have been a wake-up call?
Yes it was – I can still remember my very first training session and some of the comments “don’t tackle the girls”, “don’t hit the girl”, but exposure to it does help you in the long run. It gives you no fear and you just want to get stuck in and prove people wrong, important for playing both codes but then transferring that over to rugby union.
You had good skills as a kicker – did that dictate your position on the field
I’d say so. When I came over to Waterloo playing for the under 18s, straight away they could recognise that I was someone who could kick a ball quite far and I had those skills so they said “OK, you can play 10.” I told them I had no idea what that means at the moment, but I’ll give it a go. I had played stand off in rugby league, so it is a similar position to a fly-half. Luckily for me I got chucked in at 10 and stayed throughout my Waterloo career, and Lancashire and the North. I ventured into the 12 position a couple of times but 10 has always been the position for me.
Did you ever fancy being a forward?
Funnily enough as a 10 I liked the contact side of things. I liked putting in a big hit or a shot on someone. That comes from my rugby league background. I always thought that if I got the chance, I’d give flanker a go, but they do too much running around with their heads in funny places. Maybe flanker but I don’t think I would be rated too highly.
So how did you become so proficient at kicking
I started off at a very young age. My grandad played rugby league for the local side, St. Helens and he was the one who showed me how to kick and my dad helped me out after that. Things like place kicking, I would spend hours and hours as a youngster on the park practising and practising. It is something that I have spent a lot of time working on.
I guess if you put the hours in, you get the result at the end.
Definitely, even kicking from a young age, you refine it over the years and you develop your own style. It was worked really well for me, especially going into the women’s game and seeing how much it has grown and how the emphasis is on kicking at the minute. Developing those skills did help me to stand out a bit more from other players and get recognised for it. It is definitely just the hours that you put it, before and after training and in your own time.
When I first started watching the women’s game, the kicking generally stood out as being less consistent than other areas of play, but if you put the hours in you can become a decent kicker.
The game was more based on a running game. As I transitioned into the senior game there were few kicks – cross-field kicks, territory kicks, that is one of the most noticeable things over the years the standard of women’s rugby, the kicking game is starting to come in. You can see now in women’s teams the importance of having a decent kicker, they use kicking coaches. I have been fortunate to have a few guest kicking coaches down at Waterloo over the years. It definitely helps, even understanding the kicking game, not just the running game. It is a massive benefit now – before it would not have been tapped in to.
A great percentage of conversions appear to be going over these days
Definitely. In the women’s’ Premiership, in the first season I did top the charts for the most points scored, but as we went into the second season it was so much harder to retain those figures as the standard of kicking was increasing all of the time. As you progress upwards and look at the England team and now, how many kickers they have on the pitch. There is always someone who can slot them over.
It is certainly an important part of the game now. So, you had experienced senior rugby, so I guess the transition to senior rugby at Waterloo was not problem to you at all?
I think it did help as I had prior experience of the women’s game. It was a lot different though coming from under 18s union to the senior set up because the game is more technical and more structured. And because I was 12 months into playing rugby union, I was still on that learning curve of understanding what was happening. Playing under 18s you were not always guaranteed to get a 15 a side game unless you played for the County. The step up to senior rugby was more of a transition than league as there are so many technical elements to it.
I think just playing off structures, having set pieces, playing of the scrummage, a lot of different thought processes went into it – what should be our approach to attack, to defend. At a younger level you largely turn and play the game for the enjoyment but at senior level you need to think about what else is on top of the game. Probably one of the big step ups was in the competition level I don’t remember how many people were in the squad at the time, but you were fighting for your position and you were coming up against a to more experienced players. We were playing one level below the Premiership and the standard was so much higher than junior level and even playing senior rugby league to playing senior rugby union, that jump as massive.
But the Waterloo team did seem to do pretty well at the second-tier level – occasionally they would put ‘cricket scores’ over opponents.
In the early days of me playing senior rugby at Waterloo there were quite a few battles with teams around – we were not always guaranteed to win. In the first few years of playing senior rugby we would fall short in some games, not fulfilling our potential – we would finish around 4th or 5th in the table. A couple of the teams were bogey teams of ours – that we just couldn’t get a win over
The one that stands out was Camp Hill, West Park as well. For years we just could not get over the line against Camp Hill. We had plenty of close games, they might be 10 – 5 and we would be gutted at the end result. There was kind of a momentum shift as we started to realise the potential of the playing group and from that point onwards, we went from strength to strength and started dominating the Championship putting quite a lot of points against teams. At first you kind of get the enjoyment out of it, you have got over the hurdle as you are becoming a good team. As time went on you never got bored with the feeling of winning and it prepares you for that next challenge. Our challenge then was to get into the Premiership. It took us quite a few years to do. We had many play-off games where we fell short and then through the tendering process, we got in for the first three years of the Tyrell’s Premiership. We were fortunate enough to gain a place. That was absolutely needed for the team – probably should have come a few years earlier, but we just fell short with some of the results.
I often wondered whether because you were not been regularly tested to a high standard, coming into those play-off games you were perhaps not as sharp as you could have been. Is that fair to say?
I think so, we probably had at the time West Park as our closest rivals – you were always guaranteed a good game against them. That would help you to sharpen up your skills, but it was not like playing at a higher level. We did try to have a few friendlies or warm up games but we were not fully prepared for the physicality going into those play-off games. But it did all add to our experience of getting into the Premiership. We did benefit in the long run, but it was tough for us for four seasons playing in the play-offs. It was heart-breaking to lose at the time as we felt that we deserved it and we needed that challenge.
But you got there in the end
Yes, and it was such a good feeling to get into the Prem.
So, tell us about the first season
The first season was a baptism of fire really. We knew that it was going to be physical challenge playing against career internationals from all over the world. We did not really know what to expect. We put a lot of effort into the pre-season to get ourselves fit and trying to work on technical skills. Although it was difficult, it was one of the most enjoyable of the three in the Prem., because of the unknown. Teams came to us and did not know what to expect – they had no history on us. The first game we played was against Saracens at home and I remember thinking as we went in at half-time that we were not too many points behind, even though people were writing us off before we had even started. I’ve got goose bumps now just thinking about it. We were about seven or ten points behind at half time against a top team from the Premiership. They did not know what to expect and we threw everything at them.
We scored first, didn’t we
We got the first points on the board and I think we just shocked them. We put up a statement tat we were here to compete not just rill over and enjoy the experience. That first game was just unbelievable for us. IN the first year in the Premiership we were just unlucky with some of the results
I‘d go with that
We should have got more points and we came close to Richmond, DMP and Worcester, they were always the teams that we knew on our heads that we could go into battle with and get points from them. But then we came up short against teams like Gloucester and even Wasps – we should have done better on the day but that lack of experience cost us in that first year to get higher in the table.
I thought you put in a creditable performance in that first season. What about the second season?
It was more difficult as teams had done their homework on us. We have always been unfortunate not to have a large playing squad with a lot of experience. It is not disrespectful to those girls who put their hand up and put the shirt on, but some were fairly new into their playing careers. There were 18-year olds on the bench – it was always going to be difficult because of a lack of experience. If we got a few injuries to the first team playing squad it was then quite difficult to replace them. It was tough as we tried to change a few things that didn’t work out quite as well as we thought and because we did shock a few teams in the first year – it was a certain style of rugby that we played in the first year and I guess other teams became aware of that and managed to cope with us and know how to deal with us. We did not really have a plan B or C.
The third season must have been very tough.
The third season was tough for me – I did the full pre-season and then. Unfortunately, in the first two seasons in the Prem I broke my hand three times in the same place and I was struggling to even catch a ball. I had to have an operation during pre-season and I was told tat it would set me back 10 or 12 weeks and ten I would be fine, but I struggled for the whole of that year. Even now I’m waiting to see if I need another operation on it. I was really tough to watch the girls in the third season. As in the second season, teams knew what to expect from us. We lost a few other players through injury and new girls rotated in. They did an unbelievable job, turning up every week and putting their hearts on the line. I could not fault the effort, but it was tough to watch from the side-lines. I was frustrated as I could not help them out, but we knew that we could do better but unfortunately it just did not work out.
And then we lost our place in the Premiership along with Richmond. That was heart-breaking
Yes, two great clubs like Waterloo and Richmond that have got so much history in the game, especially the women’s game. It is always sad when you see teams like that losing out and dropping back down into the Championship. I guess with the Premiership the tendering process is quite hard with what they are asking for, to see all these clubs getting aligned to the men’s Premiership teams. There is an argument for both kinds of teams to be in the Premiership, I think.
I wondered whether they would expand the league but they chose not to do that
There were quite a lot of rumours going around at the time – expanding the league could have been a great option, but there were also rumours of a reduced Premiership to concentrate on an elite group of players. I think it might have been difficult to host two teams in the north west for the level of the Premiership – maybe there are not experienced players to go around? But it was unfortunate for Waterloo as we had learned how to manage ourselves in the Premiership – the overnight trips, the long coach trips. But we have three years to rebuild in the Championship and get a really good playing squad to regroup – let’s see what happens.
So, after 13 years all at one club you have taken the decision to retire – what’s behind that?
It took me quite a while to decide. Obviously, I was out injured, I tried to weigh it up, I guess at times you become accustomed to Tuesday evening training when it’s raining outside. I do miss getting together and going to training. It has not been an easy decision to make. Weirdly in my head I have always thought I’ll give this a proper assessment when I get to ‘a certain age’ – that age was this year and I looked around and thought there are other things I wish to pursue – I have a good career at the minute which takes up a lot of my time. The women’s game is still very much amateur and I think that with the injury that I have and to be out for so long and playing impacts other parts of your life, I think it was quite fitting to finish playing whilst in the Premiership after starting in the seniors at 18. The women’s team always strived to get into the Prem and I have done that, so it felt like the right time.
You will certainly be missed.
Since I told Christine [women’s’ chair] earlier this week about my decision and then I put a message out on social media I have been overwhelmed by the amount of messages that I have got from players past and present, supporters, players from other teams. It has blown me away. I guess you are in a kind of bubble when you are playing and you don’t appreciate the impact that you have had elsewhere, so it is really nice to get those messages.
All thoroughly deserved
I will be good to look back on in a few years’ time and even now I have had some good reminiscences with past players over good times that will stay with us for the rest of our lives – fond memories to look back upon. I would not change anything that has happened in my journey with Waterloo, a club that has done wonders for et women’s game. There are just too many people to thank over the 13 years but the club has been absolutely brilliant.
That is nice to hear. Bethany, what do you think rugby has given you as a person?
It has given me so much - I’m struggling to think as it is a tough question. One of the man things is, and I know a lot of people who play rugby say this, you are part of a team, part of a group that you would go to the end of the earth for, you would do anything for your team – we all did it together. Even in work, a big thing that I pride myself on is the value of team spirit.
Are you thinking about having any more involvement in rugby – league or union?
Rugby league pre-season has not started because of coronavirus, but I have said to St. Helens that provided that my hand is fine and I don’t need another operation I will fulfil the season with them, but with the uncertainty and I am still awaiting further results on my hand I don’t know. I have said to Christine [Braithwaite] that I will come down and do guest sessions for any aspiring youngster, whether kicking or handling. I want to give back to the club that has given me so much over the years. A full-time coaching position is not for me as I’d be frustrated wanting to be out on the pitch with them. If I can pass on any of the knowledge that I have acquired over the years, I’d be happy. I’ll be down watching women‘s and men’s games and will help out if needed. And as I said there are far too many people to thank, so I’ll have to see them down at a club that has given me so much.
It will be great to see you back at the ground again. Final question, what advice would you give young women about starting to play rugby?
Absolutely just go for it. You get so much more than you would ever think. You get to be part of this team culture, you gain confidence to do things in your everyday life. It is one of the best sports to play. Any young person, even from the age of eight or nine, don’t be scared of it, just go down and you’ll make the best friends of your life, you’ll have memories that you will never forget. It is brilliant to be part of a rugby team, especially like the one we had at Waterloo. Just get out there and give it a go.