Women’s rugby league has long taken a backseat compared to its male counterpart and never more so than in 2020 when the entire Women’s Super League season was postponed and then cancelled, and the Challenge Cup ended after only two rounds.
In contrast, the men’s league was one of the earliest sports to return in the UK and completed both the league and the Challenge Cup, albeit in altered formats.
2021 offers new hope with the start of the Women’s Super League in mid-April and a home World Cup to look forward to in October, but there is a feeling that more could still be done.
Leeds Rhinos captain Courtney Winfield-Hill perhaps speaks for everybody involved in the women’s game when she says: “Any rugby would be nice rugby.”
“All the girls were training and working really hard for a potential season and the goalposts just kept shifting, which was incredibly difficult.”
Women’s rugby league players rely on full-time work as they are unpaid as players and many are key workers.
Winfield-Hill said: “It’s a heavy space to work in at the minute. And then on top of that, when you don’t have your release of rugby league.
“At the Rhinos we’ve had the support of sports psychologists chatting with this, and a lot of that is just general wellbeing sometimes to get people through at the minute.
“We’re pretty blessed at the Rhinos with what support we can access”
However, Winfield-Hill believes wider change is needed in rugby league to avoid losing women from the game completely.
“People say: “Well, why weren’t the women playing when the men were?” I think it’s just another push for the cause of women’s sport to be more professional, because, ultimately, that was the reason we couldn’t get back on.
“It was too difficult to manage the female players coming in and out of training a couple of times a week, but then also going back to their workplaces, because they have to sustain a full-time job.”
Winfield-Hill, a former cricket player and current coach with the Northern Diamonds cricket team, looks at what other sports are doing in this country to keep women playing the game.
“Rugby union is going ahead, netball is going ahead, I just hope it opens up rugby league administration’s eyes.
“Where cricket is within their professionalism of the women’s game, it is polar opposites. We need to push, we need to find new gears, we cannot be happy and sit still.”
Another source of frustration comes from the work being done in Winfield-Hill’s homeland of Australia.
She said: “Last year’s nines in Australia shows that the powerhouses of New Zealand and Australia are charging ahead and the gap is becoming ridiculously big.
“There’s only one way to fix it and that’s time on task, time on task only happens if you pay people to be there and have professional resources around.
“It’s all budget restraints and what have you, but they just need to be bold.”
At 34, Winfield-Hill, the inaugural winner of the Woman of Steel award, recognises her time as a player is limited, and if the RFL does not move the game forward they could lose her too.
“I don’t play for money, none of us do, and we’re all still sitting here, still committed heavily to the Rhinos.
“There might come a point where I’ve only got so many years left in me as an athlete and if it’s years where I can challenge myself again and being professional allows that. Who knows? But I would never say no [to a return to cricket.]
She continues: “I’d love to go back and play cricket again, I said to Lauren [her wife and England professional cricketer] this morning: “Could I play cricket on Saturday and rugby league on Sunday, do you think?” and she said I was mad.
“Right now, I’m committed to playing for Rhinos, but again, if I could juggle something, I would.”
A return in April means players will have spent over a year on the sidelines, however, there was the chance for a friendly competition to be played over the winter, but a combination of lack of game time in 2020 with an action-packed 2021 made the idea unfeasible.
Head of growth at the RFL, Thomas Brindle said: “We had the opportunity to explore doing some stuff in winter 2020 but from a practical standpoint and also looking forward to the World Cup, it didn’t feel right.
“After a long absence, bringing people back in a short time into what possibly weren’t ideal conditions and then building up to what could be a year’s worth of activity and fatigue on the players wasn’t the right decision.”
An extended absence from play is something that also worries Winfield-Hill.
She said: “My biggest concern is that people in the RFL push it too quickly. We need that time to get back in for a small preseason because I would hate injuries to have a real dramatic impact on squad depth across the year.”
“The hardest part is not knowing.”
Having said that, Winfield-Hill believes that the time away from the game will make players more eager than ever to get back out on the pitch.
“Perhaps the hunger will encourage people to train a little bit harder and hopefully won’t take too long to bounce back from.”
“I just hope that disappointment fuels a real hunger and drive. It’s looking relatively positive for 2021.”
Another person who is excited about the year to come is England Women’s head coach Craig Richards.
Richards has been working with the England performance programme at recent camps and has been impressed with how well they have been working.
“I must say hats off to the girls, they have all come back in absolutely great shape. And that’s allowed us to, to start off in a really, really good place, their fitness levels are good, the attitudes being absolutely perfect.”
“So, at the moment in terms of training, there’s not a lot holding us back. Yes, the testing is something that we’ve factored into the morning, but as for the on-field stuff, we just couldn’t ask for more and I feel as though the girls are in a really good place.”
England Women are planning to play two intra-squad matches, but an opponent for a mid-season Test has not yet been confirmed, meaning England could go into the World Cup without having played an international fixture since November 2019.
Richards said: “It’s not ideal, but a whole lot of things in this day and age are not ideal and we will make the best of it.
“Hopefully, we will play one test match and a couple of practice games, but the origin fixtures will be absolutely huge for us and we think if we get a strong Super League on the back of that, we’ll be in really good shape for the World Cup.”
Richards aims for the World Cup are not just to be in good shape, but to win the whole thing.
He said: “If we weren’t thinking of winning the World Cup, then I know for sure I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now the girls wouldn’t be training as hard as what they are”
“It’s just about putting together some performances getting through the early rounds unscathed and, with a bit of luck, injury-free, and then just having a real big dig at the semi-final and hopefully get through to a final and putting ourselves in a place to win it.”
The Rugby League World Cup will see the women’s competition run alongside the men’s and wheelchair tournaments and the final at Old Trafford on 27th November will be a doubleheader with the women’s final played before the men’s.
2021 was supposed to be the culmination of four years of work by the RFL to grow the game, with the aim of 21,000 women and girls playing rugby league by the women’s final.
Brindle now says that they are looking forward to growing the game in years to come: “It’s hard to say 21,000 by the final that will still be great, but the reality is we don’t know where we are and how the year will pan out. Without Covid, I think we would have smashed it.
“We want to try to regionalise our girls’ competition and we also want to try and expand that rather than just being in one of our traditional areas, move into different areas and deliver girls regional hubs in Cumbria, the northeast and London.”
After more than a year without the game, women’s rugby league is at the start of potentially era-defining nine months.
However, if the warnings of Winfield-Hill are not heeded, women’s rugby league may once again be taking a backseat not just to the men but to other women’s sports in the UK.