Seren Gough-Walters' 'surreal' rugby league journey from Sharjah to Wales

Former Wanderers junior fulfilled her dream by featuring in a Test match against England

Wales' Seren Gough-Walters, right, is tackled by England's Emily Rudge, left, and Amy Hardcastle during their women's international match at the Halliwell Jones Stadium, Warrington on June 25, 2021. Getty
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The first rugby league Test match between England and Wales earlier this summer might have been a new fixture, but there was plenty that was familiar about it.

It was played in Warrington, a dyed-in-the-wool league town in the north of England, live on Sky Sports on a Friday evening.

Among the players, all of the code’s heartlands like St Helens, Wigan, Castleford and Leeds were represented.

And Sharjah.

“I got messages from Sharjah and all over the world from people who knew that we had been playing,” says Seren Gough-Walters, who was part of the pioneering Wales side.

“It was a prime-time spot, on a Friday evening, and they actually mentioned Sharjah being in my blood. All my friends and family who were watching loved that shout out to Sharjah from the commentators.”

Fair to say, Gough-Walters does not exactly fit the standard profile of a rugby league international.

She was born in Al Wasl Hospital (now known as Latifa Hospital) in Dubai, raised in Sharjah, did not take up rugby seriously till she was 15, has a master’s in global governance and ethics, and once worked as an immigration officer at the British Embassy in Abu Dhabi.

Now she dovetails playing commitments in both league and union with her job as a digital marketing executive, as well as running her own Arabian-inspired jewellery business.

And, as of this summer, she is an international rugby league player – having previously represented UAE in sevens.

“It was surreal,” she says of debuting for Wales against one of the world’s leading sides, live on TV.

“You think about that moment for so long. It was amazing to be in that stadium, wearing that shirt, and to work together as a squad against a very strong England side.

“We were the underdogs. It was our first proper Test match. England are third in the world, and we had only really been together for three months.

“We have come so far, but there is so much more to give.”

Wales lost 60-0 but Gough-Walters says the game was a positive experience for the embryonic side, and is optimistic about the future.

This weekend she will feature in a Cardiff Demons side, made up largely from members of the Welsh national team, in the final of the Super League South against the Army.

She says there is a five-year plan in place to grow the game in Wales.

“It is great to be here at the beginning and setting the path for the younger girls coming through,” says Gough-Walters, 29.

“The aspirations for the Super League team, with plans to become semi-professional, are amazing.”

Her own journey to reach this point has been a circuitous one. The daughter of rugby-loving parents from Wales who have been long-term residents of the UAE, she first took to the sport at Sharjah Wanderers, having previously excelled at netball and athletics at Sharjah English School.

That club will always hold a special place in my heart – even just the pitch has so many memories that come out for me whenever I go back,” she says of the Wanderers. “I have huge nostalgia for it.”

She left UAE to study for an international relations degree at Loughborough University aged 18, where she became immersed in XVs rugby.

After university, she spent time in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and London, before feeling the pull of rugby in Wales in 2015.

“I moved to Cardiff four years ago to pursue rugby,” she says.

“I was at a bit of a crossroads in life. I had always wanted to come back to Wales and absorb myself in rugby.

“I made that call. I booked an Airbnb, and didn’t have a job, or a plan really. I just wanted to set up and give it a shot, and luckily it has worked out.”

Gough-Walters is part of a select few female players who have gone from the UAE to international representative honours with one of rugby’s established nations. Emirati student Sophie Shams has played sevens for England, while former Abu Dhabi Harlequin Fiona Reidy has played XVs for Ireland.

She believes rugby is a sport which promotes the sort of values that benefits all of its players.

“I understand the contact side puts a lot of people, particularly girls, off rugby,” Gough-Walters says.

“But all of the values rugby teaches you, as a young girl or young woman, in terms of body image and other things, are very relevant.

“Rugby is such an amazing sport because you are surrounded by girls who are focused on what your body can do.

“It teaches you not to value your body for what it looks like, but what you can achieve with it. It is also very inclusive, for all different people, and there is a position for everyone.

“There are so many positive values it teaches you that set you up for the rest of your life.”

Updated: August 27, 2021, 6:58 AM