Friday, 26 October 2018

TURNED OUT GRAND - women's rugby league

The rugby league season’s centrepiece takes place on Saturday in Manchester – but it won’t only be men taking part. Mark Metcalf reports on the recent growth of the women’s game. 
On 13 October 2018, Wigan Warriors Women’s team beat Leeds Rhinos Women 16-12 to win the Women’s Super League Grand Final for the first time. The article that appears here was in the Big Issue North magazine in the week leading up to the final. 
The second Women’s Super League takes place on Saturday (13 Oct) in Manchester. It will be followed later in the day by the more established men’s final – the showcase of rugby league. The players’ passion and commitment will be the same – but only the men are professional. 
The women’s final will feature the winners of the semi-finals between Leeds Rhinos and Castleford Tigers, and Wigan Warriors and St Helens, which took place after Big Issue North went to press. 
This toughest of sports is increasingly popular with women, and there are more teams and players at every age range. Although even the highest level players, such as Emily Rudge, Gemma Walsh, Chantelle Crowl and Lois Forsell, are amateur, hopes are high that the sport’s recent progress will enable it to emulate the women’s football, cricket and hockey games, which have all embraced professionalism in recent years. 
The RFL Women’s Rugby League of 13 teams was started in 2014 and Thatto Heath Crusaders of St Helens were the last winners in 2016. Following discussions between the development team at the RFL – the sport’s governing body – and the men’s professional clubs, an elite women’s competition was created in 2017 and won by the Bradford Bulls. According to Sarah-Jane Grey, the RFL’s public affairs director: “Clubs such as Wigan Warriors and Leeds Rhinos were asked to wrap their brands around the women’s game to help it grow. The impact of the professional clubs being involved in the women’s game has helped inspire more girls and women to play rugby league. In turn, we have worked hard to ensure that the marketing, organisation and promotion of the Women’s Super League is done professionally.” 
The women’s game’s structure, consequently, is now similar to the men’s, with 20 sides in three leagues, as well as fast-growing youth divisions. It was very different when Wigan Warriors captain Walsh was growing up in the 1990s and was keen to follow her father David, who played for Wigan professionally in the 1980s. 
“I was brought up playing rugby league but there were very few female teams,” says the 34-year-old stand-off, who has represented England in three World Cups. “Like most young girls I ended up playing in a virtually all boys team as there were no mixed teams allowed. My father’s friend established a side but it was often a struggle to find opponents.” 
Walsh eventually joined a local side in Hindley before moving to Yorkshire to play with Wakefield Panthers – subsequently Featherstone Rovers – for 15 years before becoming Wigan Warriors’ first captain. Like her, Rudge, Crowe and Forsell all also speak of how difficult it was to find sides to play for as they grew up. 
Canadian-born Crowl, who represents St Helens, recalls an unsuccessful attempt to develop a women’s side associated with Widnes Vikings, her local professional club. 
“The Rugby Football League were not keen to promote or advertise the women’s game and we didn’t have the facilities to make it attractive to newcomers. I might have quit myself but I really love playing rugby.” 
Crowl says playing rugby league as a youngster helped her overcome racial abuse, her parents’ break-up and her emigration to Britain. But she has an ankle injury and may not play if her side makes it to Saturday’s final, and has been desperate for her physiotherapist to give her the go-ahead to start training. 
“I would love to be fit and able to play, especially as there is also an England international later in October,” says the back-row forward. “Injuries are part and parcel of any competitive contact sport.” 
Like Crowl, Forsell, who plays for her hometown team of Leeds Rhinos, is also currently out injured. Her torn anterior cruciate ligament means she certainly won’t be fit should the Yorkshire side play in the final at the Manchester Regional Arena on the Etihad Campus. With the Men’s Super League final set to be played later in the day at Old Trafford the hope is that, at least, some of those amongst the sellout crowd there will take the time to watch the women’s final.
Forsell was delighted to collect a league winner’s medal last season with Bradford Bulls before becoming Leeds Rhinos Women’s first ever signing in December 2017, where she had also been working as a development officer. The women’s side is coached by Rhinos’ male forward Adam Cuthbertson. 
Forsell featured in every game for England at the 2017 Rugby League World Cup and earlier this year was appointed the sport’s first ever national women’s player ambassador. 
“I had always wanted to play for the Rhinos and it was a joy to pull on the shirt at the start of the season,” she says. 
St Helens are playing Wigan Warriors away in the semi-final, bringing Rudge up against Walsh. That might make things tricky over the breakfast table as the pair were married in February this year. 
At the start of the decade the RFL began to try to lessen the barriers for LGBT people who want to be involved in the sport. Information packs were distributed to clubs to assist with tackling homophobia and an LGBT online forum was created for all RFL staff, players and coaches. As a result in 2012 the RFL won LGBT charity Stonewall’s Sports Award. 
Rudge says: “I have never had a problem with being gay and playing rugby league. There are other gay players in our league. I can understand though why gay sports players in more high profile sports decide not to come out as there remains a lot of negativity out there from people.” 
St Helens usually play home matches at Thatto Heath but played their game against Castleford last month at the St Helens Stadium as a curtain-raiser for the men’s game featuring the same sides. In league games with Saints this season, Wigan have triumphed both times. 
“It is always good to beat St Helens, who are our local rivals,” says Walsh, who recalls that in one of the games “Gemma made a very strong late tackle on me that led to the referee awarding an infringement”. 
The pair met in 2008. Rudge, who believes she has greatly benefited throughout her life by being surrounded by strong female personalities in her mother, two grandmas and her sister, is a physical education teacher at a secondary school. “It is a demanding job and that means if, like Gemma, I want to play rugby league at the highest level I often have to miss out on seeing my friends and family. 
“We train as a squad two nights a week. It is much more intensive than in the past and we also practice routines and new ideas and develop a team spirit that can help in big games such as against Wigan next time – when I am confident we will win. 
“We also have to fit in two weekly gym sessions. Add in a match at the weekend and there is very little spare time left. It is a big commitment but you need to maintain a high level of fitness and strength in order to compete.” 
Rudge, who joined St Helens from Thatto Heath Crusaders, first played at the 2008 World Cup for her country on her seventeenth birthday. There have been five women’s world cups, with Australia capturing their second title in 2017 to leave them just one behind New Zealand. England, where the next tournament will be held in 2021, were heavily beaten by both countries last year in Australia. 
Nevertheless, Crowl was “delighted” to have got the chance to play in the World Cup. She was highly impressed by the training facilities and the grounds the games were played on in Australia. 
“There is clearly a drive to help the game move forward. Good facilities help attract more players, make it easier to train and unsurprisingly the sport is growing strongly amongst women of all ages. Australia also play more international games with regular games against New Zealand. This raises standards considerably and it is something we need to do here. 
“If we want to be able to compete internationally and raise standards to attract more people to play the game and also come and watch the domestic games then players need to be able to train
and concentrate full time on the game. Hopefully the 2021 tournament can play a big role in developing a professional women’s rugby league competition in Britain.” 
Grey hopes that Saturday’s final will be a stepping stone towards that. With the men’s Super League final to be played later in the day at Old Trafford the hope is that some of those among the sellout crowd there will take the time to watch the women’s final. 
“The season has been outstanding so far with some great games taking place. The standard has clearly risen overall and I expect to see a tight, competitive match and whoever wins will be worthy champions. If you’ve never watched a women’s rugby league match before please come along as you won’t be disappointed.”

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