Leah scoring a try

TASS athlete Leah Burke scoring a try in the World 9s (October 2019). Leah was a gymnast for 13 years and now she’s heading to Papua New Guinea to represent England in the Women’s Rugby League test. 

Ahead of England’s two-Test series against Papua New Guinea, TASS hears how one of Rugby League’s rising stars went from complete beginner to senior international…within the space of two years.

Tales of teenage gymnasts forced to call time on their fledgling careers far too early are ten a penny. Training for 20-plus hours every week and travelling the length and breadth of Britain to take on the best of the rest inevitably takes its toll.

And for every Becky Downie-style success story there are hundreds of far more sobering accounts detailing painful injuries and early retirement. Examples of former gymnasts reinventing themselves as world class Rugby League players are, however, few and far between.

“I was 16 when I was diagnosed with a stress fracture in my lower back,” explains Leah Burke, a member of the 23-strong England team preparing for back-to-back Test matches against Papua New Guinea later this month. The 21-year-old made her senior debut in last month’s Rugby League 9s World Cup and the Leeds Beckett University student is relishing a second trip to the southern hemisphere in as many months.

“I’d been a gymnast for 13 years and, at the point I was injured, I was training intensively every week and competing at weekends,” she adds. “The stress fracture was a shock but, on reflection, I realised that I’d achieved everything I wanted to as a gymnast. I’d competed at national championships but I knew I wasn’t good enough to get to the next level. I focused on coaching and judging but stopped competing altogether. I took time out from all sport as I didn’t want to do any long-term damage.”

Five years down the line and Burke is a fixture in the England Rugby League team with one eye on making her mark at the 2021 World Cup. It’s a remarkable journey that’s yet to reach its final destination: a daring trip into the unknown that started almost by accident.

“When I went to university I went back to gymnastics for a while but by the second year I was keen to start something new,” explains Leah, who hails from the Rugby League hotbed of Leigh, in Greater Manchester.

“My younger sister Rhianna was already playing both codes of rugby and suggested I give it a go. I started playing Rugby Union in my second year and that January Rhianna said she was going for trials with St Helens.

“She suggested I go along too and I’ve been playing Rugby League ever since. That was January 2018 and I received my first England call-up for the 9s in September 2019.”

Leah represents St Helens in the Women’s Super League and is widely recognised as one of the most exciting young wingers in the world. A try on her World Cup 9s debut against Papua New Guinea further boosted a burgeoning reputation and it’s likely England coach Craig Richards will hand the fast-rising star more key minutes in the two-Test series against the same opposition this month.

“The 9s was a really good experience,” she adds. “It was important to get over to Australia and spend quality time together as a team. It was my first senior international call-up so it was a fantastic experience for me.

“As a team it was our first experience of 9s at that level and in that respect it was a real trip into the unknown. We beat Papua New Guinea and, although we lost to Australia and New Zealand, it was still an invaluable experience.

“We did everything the same as the men – including getting paid on equal terms. We had use of the same changing rooms, the same recovery suite and were treated exactly the same in every way. It felt like a real breakthrough.

“But Rugby League is very forward thinking in that respect. It’s going to be the same at the 2021 World Cup with the men’s and women’s able bodied and wheelchair teams treated equally. Of course, for the rest of the year the men are full-time and we’re not but it’s all about small steps which continue to push the sport forward at every level.

“Women’s Rugby League is making giant strides both at home and internationally. People know what women’s Rugby League is all about in 2019 – our Grand Final was live on Sky Sports and people could watch the 9s tournament too. That all helps.”

As does the breakthrough of the game’s new breed. And Leah looks like the most natural poster girl for a sport encouraging more young women to get involved.

“To any girls considering playing Rugby League I’d say give it a go,” she adds. “Nothing beats playing a team sport with a big group of like-minded women. They become your friends and your family and that bond is something very special.

“We all look out for each other and we’d do anything for each other – on and off the field. At a very basic level the exercise element is beneficial and that’s something else I love about my sport.”

And yet sport is only part of the story where Leah is concerned. When the flying winger isn’t scoring tries she’s trying to score top marks as a postgraduate student at Leeds Beckett. “I’m studying for a Masters in Sport and Exercise Physiology,” she explains. “When I graduated I was in the right mindset to carry on my education.

“I saw the value of studying for a Masters and thanks to the Talented Athlete Scholarship Scheme (TASS) the opportunity is there to continue on the dual career path. I’m under no illusions that I’m going to make a living out of playing Rugby League anytime soon and so it’s hugely important that I do everything I can to secure a good career.

“I want to stay in sport – that’s my passion. I was interested in PE at school and love all sports. To be able to work in sport would be wonderful – I think all you can ask for is to do a job that you love. At this stage I’m already thinking about finding a job that will fit in with my Rugby League ambitions.”

As a TASS supported athlete Leah is actively encouraged to follow the dual career pathway and the Sport England-backed organisation continues to enjoy a fruitful relationship with England Rugby League. Encouraging elite athletes to combine their sport with studies, TASS has a global reputation for working alongside national governing bodies to support ambitious young people on and off the field.

“TASS support has been really helpful for me,” admits Leah, who secured her place on the scheme for a second year this summer. “It’s coincided with my England call-up so it can’t be bad!

“Having access to strength and conditioning every week has made me fitter and stronger and put me in contention for that call-up. The nutrition and psychological support has been great and it’s available to access at any time.

“I think, as a student, living away from home, you don’t always eat the right things and the nutritional advice has genuinely made me a better athlete. The lifestyle support helps me to set achievable goals and reach those goals. The dual focus on sport and the academic side of things is exactly what I need.”
And for the Burkes, TASS support has become a family affair! “Rhianna has just started university at Nottingham,” explains Leah. “And she’s just had her TASS support confirmed. It’s great news.”

Rhianna is one of Leah’s biggest fans – frequently tweeting about her big sister’s achievements and supporting her every step of the way. That backing runs in the family.

“My dad used to play Rugby League for Leigh Centurions and he’s always been a big fan of the game,” adds Leah. “He drifted away from it when I was doing gymnastics as it was a full-time job ferrying me all over the place for competitions!

“But he loves the fact that I’m playing Rugby League now and both of my parents hate missing any match I play. They came out to Australia for the 9s and loved every minute. Also, I don’t have a car so dad’s still the designated taxi driver!”

With the regular 13-a-side format Leah’s primary focus for the next fortnight, those back-to-back games against Papua New Guinea can’t come soon enough. “We’re flying to Australia first and we’ll be there for a week training as a full squad,” she explains.

“It’s an opportunity to work on skills and fitness before the two Papua New Guinea matches. They are quite a new team but Rugby League is their national sport and what they lack in experience they make up for in strength.

“We can take some lessons from when we played them in the 9s World Cup – they’re a physical team and we’re working on ways to counter that.”

*England face Papua New Guinea in Goroka on November 9 and in Port Moresby on November 16.