Rugby League and women. To the outsider the two might not sound like the ideal couple.
But scratch below the surface and it becomes obvious that ladies play a key role in the game Sir Bradley Wiggins dubs ‘the hardest sport in the world’.
This week saw the launch of Her Rugby League Association (Her RLA) in Manchester, the brainchild of Sky Sports presenter Angela Powers.
The group aims to introduce more women to the sport while celebrating the ladies already contributing to the game’s successes.
“Almost since the game began women have been involved, from standing on the terraces cheering on their teams to supporting their men, husbands, sons, brothers and fathers,” Angela said.
“The whole point of Her RLA is to promote the game and bring more people in by selling ourselves.
“But we also want to have events that appeal to a new and broader demographic, giving people who have never watched the game before the chance to come along and see that it’s a lot more than just 80 minutes of sport.
“Despite its combative nature, it has grown to be considered the sport for all the family, and that is reﬂected in the make-up of the crowd and the warm and friendly atmosphere most people experience at live games.
“This is about bringing them together, sharing ideas, helping each other and showing the world what a great, inclusive, and exciting sport it is.”
The group has already attracted the interest of top Super League players including Man of Steel Sam Tomkins, England and Leeds captain Kevin Sinfield and Warrington Wolves captain Adrian Morley.
And former Great Britain captain and St Helens legend Paul Sculthorpe believes the organisation will benefit the game as a whole for both genders.
“There’s already a massive amount of women involved in rugby league in every capacity so it’s great to be building on that and recruiting even more,” he told MM.
“It’s a great concept and Angela’s done a great job getting everyone involved and the more and more we can spread rugby league, the better for the game. It’s great to be getting more women involved.”
Bradford Bulls made history in January, welcoming their first ever female director when award-winning businesswoman Kate Hardcastle joined the club’s board.
The former semi-professional singer and Tesco’s 2013 Mum of the Year is one of a number of prominent ambassadors of Her RLA and believes the association has an important role in spreading the game to new audiences.
“As someone who has grown up with rugby league, as a supporter, player & now with a role in creating a future for the Bradford Bulls, I am delighted to be part of the Her RLA initiative,” she said.
“We need to make sure we raise the profile of rugby league generally – and as part of that encourage growth amongst all our audiences. Everyone has a big part to play.”
With the men’s Rugby League World Cup attracting plenty of media attention ahead of its Old Trafford final, this summer’s Festival of World Cups has largely crept up unnoticed outside of rugby league circles.
In addition to student, wheelchair, police and armed forces competitions, the fiercely competitive women’s World Cup will climax on July 14 at Leeds Rhinos’ Headingley Carnegie Stadium.
In just over five weeks England’s ladies will kick-start their effort to prise the trophy from New Zealand – champions at all three World Cups in the competition’s short history.
And Normanton Knights forward Lori Holloran, who was named in head coach Chris Chapman’s 24-strong World Cup squad on Thursday, admits the sport was key in her upbringing.
“My family’s been into rugby league all my life,” she told MM.
“My dad played and coached an amateur side and when I was nine I used to go along and train alongside them. I’ve been playing ever since really.
“If people go and watch the world cup I think they’ll realise that women in sport can actually do as well as men, and hopefully they might get involved themselves.
“The preparations are going really well at the moment and the nearer we get to it, the more confident we’ll be.”
In charge of the festival is pioneer Julia Lee, who became the first female match official in England and Australia during her 15 years as a referee.
Formerly head of participation for the Rugby Football League (RFL), the English game’s governing body, she believes it will be a summer to remember.
“It’s been a dream for the last four or five years of mine and it’s now only a few weeks away it’s really exciting,” she told MM.
“There’s 25 teams with 55 games in two weeks so a lot of activity in a very, very short space of time but I’m just so looking forward to it now.
“It’s just a great opportunity – I’ve always been so aware of other women and supportive of other women in rugby league.
Former Salford City Reds press officer Carolyn Derbyshire is another with rugby league flows in the blood – her parents’ wedding celebrations took place at the 1969 Challenge Cup final.
“I’m hoping Her RLA will be a forum for supporters and women who work in the game, and a forum for us to come together because as a united force we’re a stronger voice,” she told MM.
“I think rugby league has very much got its own identities, a very strong northern sort of traditionalist outlook.
“What we have to do as part of this organisation, as well as the game in its wider context, is break down that perception and show we are a sport suitable for families.”
Of course the sport equally offers opportunities to those who didn’t grow up with the 13-man code, allowing anyone to enjoy the fast-paced, hard-hitting action that makes up rugby league.
Historian Victoria Dawson, a PhD student at the International Centre for Sports History and Culture at Leicester’s De Montfort University, only got into the game through friends in 2000.
“It’s fantastic as a sport,” she told MM. “What I love about rugby league is that community element and its rich history.
“It has been a democratic sport since 1895 – it was formed in the spirit of inclusion.
“It didn’t want to bar anyone from playing the game on class lines, which is what rugby union succeeded in doing for several decades.
“I love the rugby league family – people talk about it and it does exist – there’s camaraderie around the sport, a rich social history. I’m just passionate about the game.”
Although still in its infancy Her RLA already have a packed schedule, kicking-off with a Ladies Night at Warrington’s Halliwell Jones stadium when England’s men face the Exiles representative side on June 14.
And Jacqueline Hughes-Lundy, association director and founder of the Inspiring Women Awards, admits the interest and support have already exceeded expectations.
“It has been phenomenal,” she told MM. “There are other women in other sports who have been going for a couple of years and they are all amazed at how quickly the idea has gone from something around the kitchen table to actually being here.
“We’ve already got the first event organised which is the Exiles game and we’re looking at setting up the mentoring and the awards – ask a busy woman to do something and we’ll do it quickly!”
Among those famous faces getting behind the group include RFL chairman and former FA chief executive Brian Barwick.
He said: “I am a big supporter of Her RLA and I am sure the sport will benefit from all the hard work going into making sure everybody has an opportunity to get involved.”
And England forward Jon Wilkin, currently in his 11th season with St Helens is another formal ambassador of Her Rugby.
The chairman of the Super League Players’ Association said: “I think it’s a really great concept and I know it will gain massive support. I would love to be an ambassador and commit some time to helping out.”
More information about Her RLA and their future events can be found at herrugbyleague.co.uk
Image courtesy of SkySportsOfficial via YouTube, with thanks