Craig Richards and Lindsay Anfield will find themselves on different sides of the pitch on Saturday, but there’s one area of common ground between the Challenge Cup rivals: both feel the weight of what the match will mean for the women’s game as a whole.
The weekend battle at Leigh Sports Village between Richards’ Saints and Anfield’s York City Knights will be the first Cup final appearance for both sides.
The televised clash, kicking off at 11:15am, will take place ahead of the two men’s semi-finals. In the year of a home World Cup, it promises to be another massive marker on women’s rugby league’s journey into mainstream consciousness.
“I think there’s a huge responsibility on the coaches and the players to really showcase the women’s game at its best,” said Richards, Coaching and Education Manager at St Helens, who also skips England’s women.
“We’re hoping that this is a close and highly skilled game that really showcases to people who haven’t seen a women’s game before how skilled and prepared to play the girls are.
“It could be the start of something even bigger for the women’s game in terms of audiences.
“My ambition is that it just becomes the norm for the girls. I know the World Cup will be bigger, but if they’ve experienced it, it just makes life that bit easier.”
The World Cup, set to begin with England’s men taking on Samoa in Newcastle on October 23, will mark the first time the men’s, women’s and wheelchair tournaments all form part of the same event.
Knights director of women’s rugby Anfield hopes marquee matches like the World Cup and Challenge Cup final can inspire the next generation of talent.
“The profile’s raising year after year.
“Hopefully lots of people will see it, enjoy it and want more so that the profile will just continue to grow.
“It will hopefully start other girls on their journey towards playing rugby league.”
Undefeated St Helens are heavy favourites to win the Challenge Cup showdown, boasting England internationals such as Emily Rudge, Faye Gaskin and Tara Jones.
Saints are also eyeing history as they aim to win both the men’s and women’s Challenge Cups in the same season, with the men up against Hull in their semi-final.
Underdogs Knights Ladies have undergone drastic changes in the past couple of months, announcing seven new signings on a single day in May.
Former Castleford boss Anfield joined the club in April, bringing five players with her including England internationals Rhiannon Marshall and Kelsey Gentles alongside 21-year-old Savannah Andrade, who was part of Bradford Bulls’ unbeaten 2017 season.
And while the fifth-placed club may lack the intimidation factor of their rivals, they’ve certainly packed a punch this season and have big plans for the future.
“We’ve got a real mix of girls. We’ve got the York girls who are really resilient, the journey that they’ve been on in the past few years in terms of getting beat and lots of points put past them,” Anfield said.
“On the other hand we’ve got the Bradford and Castleford girls who know what it’s like to get beaten in a final, so they’ve got that hunger and desire so put them two together and you’ve got a pretty powerful weapon.
“This is probably going to be a massive springboard for us for where we want to be.
“Yes, it’s probably come a bit sooner than we anticipated but it’s definitely put the club and the city on the map in terms of rugby league.
“I think it just shows what you can do if you get a group of girls in the right mindset to embrace change. I’m really proud.”
Anfield also forms part of the England set-up and has worked closely with Richards. The pair were mostly confident their friendship could survive the final’s score line.
“Hopefully I’ll be sat back with a coffee in my hand watching Saints win but not by too much as I don’t need a deflated Lindsay Anfield in the next England session,” Richards joked.
“We get on really well and I always wish Lindsay the best… apart from Saturday.”