Lacey Owen was 11 when she first picked up a rugby ball. Now aged 23, she is a Women’s Super League champion, an England international, and one of the first female rugby league players in the country to sign a professional contract.
The York Valkyrie player’s rise to the top has not been without its challenges though. Growing up in Castleford, she had to get her oval-ball fix outside of a handful of league matches for her school playing club rugby union due to a lack of offerings at the time from community clubs in the area.
Owen turned her hand to other sports such as netball and football as well, but like many in the West Yorkshire town it was rugby league which was her fervent passion, and she has rapidly realised her ambitions since joining Castleford Tigers in the Women’s Super League as a 16-year-old.
“The first time I picked a rugby ball up – maybe it was the adrenaline I got or the fact it was all right to tackle somebody and run at people,” Owen told Sky Sports.
“It’s a bit weird, but I felt like it was a sport I didn’t have to try to be good at, it just came naturally. I’m a very sporty person anyway so usually if I tried something I was good at it, but as soon as I picked a rugby ball up, I knew that was what I wanted to do.
“Since picking a ball up from being in year seven, I’ve never looked back. I’ve tried every other sport you could imagine, but it doesn’t quite suffice for me in the way rugby does.”
Although utilised as a fly-half or outside centre in rugby union, Owen has found her niche as a second row in league and is now aiming to develop those ball-handling and organisational skills utilised in her roles in the 15-a-side code after harnessing her ability to pick a good line.
After taking a six-month break from the sport for personal reasons at the end of 2021, Owen followed her former Castleford head coach Lindsay Anfield to York in May last year and has quickly become a mainstay of the Valkyrie pack.
Her form as York secured a first Grand Final triumph last month, beating reigning champions Leeds Rhinos 16-6 at the LNER Community Stadium with Owen among the try-scorers, was rewarded with her earning a first England cap in the end-of-year Test against Wales.
Her international debut off the interchange bench at Headingley saw Owen score a try with one of her first touches in the 60-0 win for the hosts, but perhaps the biggest moment for her this year came when she was one of 20 Valkyrie players to be offered a two-year professional contract.
“It’s unreal women in rugby league have got professional contracts and I’m one of the few women in the country who have got one,” Owen said.
I’m a very sporty person anyway so usually if I tried something I was good at it, but as soon as I picked a rugby ball up, I knew that was what I wanted to do.
“It’s a special thing, too. I’m not going to take it for granted next season and it shows how far rugby league has come as a whole, not just the women’s sport, and shows younger girls as well this is something you can achieve and hopefully in a couple of years it will expand.
“I was blown away when I got asked to sign a contract with York because it is a step forward and it’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I’ve always wanted it to be more than a hobby.”
Although now a contracted professional player, Owen will still be combining her rugby commitments with her day-job at her old secondary school Castleford Academy, which means continuing the long days of heading to work a 7.30am and not getting back home until 9pm after training with York.
Not that she is complaining about the sacrifices she has to make though, and Owen is enthused by the growth of the women’s game in her home area which was underlined by four other schools bringing girls teams to Castleford Academy earlier this week for a Wakefield district competition.
Owen has become in demand for shirt presentations and end-of-season awards nights for girls teams too, and is humbled that she is being seen as an inspirational figure for the next generation.
“It’s really nice because I’m a role-model for all these young girls [at school] and I coach three rugby teams, so it’s really nice to see them progressing,” Owen said.
“They asked me lots of questions about it and say ‘Oh, Miss, do you think we’ll be able to do that as our job?’. It’s really nice to hopefully think women will either be able to do it part-time or full-time as a job.
“If we can achieve that working full-time, imagine what we could achieve if we had full-time contracts in the sport.”
The achievements of York’s women in recent seasons have seen them become the city’s leading rugby league lights ahead of the men’s team, the Knights, in the Championship, and Owen is delighted Andrew Henderson’s squad have been fully supportive of their efforts as well.
The Women’s Challenge Cup has so far eluded the Valkyrie though and the aim for the 2024 season is to add that prize to the collection, along with retaining the League Leaders’ Shield and repeating their Grand Final success.
“We’ve done fantastic this year as a club and something we’ve focused on is reaching the pinnacle at the right time,” Owen said. “That’s something we did really well, but now it’s about us being consistent throughout next year.
“I think the treble is on the cards for us next year and we’ve got some great players to hopefully execute that. Obviously, we all know Super League rugby and finals rugby is very different.
“It’s when pressure is applied how we execute next year, but I’ve got us pinned for the treble – I hope so, anyway.”
Watch every match of the 2024 Super League season, including Magic Weekend, the play-offs, and men’s, women’s, and wheelchair Grand Finals, live on Sky Sports. Also.
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