Tears spilled from Jodie Cunningham’s two black eyes as she reflected on England’s heartbreaking exit from the Women’s Rugby League World Cup and the changes required to continue to bridge the dwindling gap to the sport’s southern-hemisphere giants.
A crowd of over 7,000 in York watched New Zealand’s blend of power and professionalism prove just too much for Cunningham’s side, who slipped to a 20-6 defeat that extended an unbroken sequence of World Cup defeats to the Kiwi Ferns stretching back to the tournament’s inauguration in 2000.
Amid the gut-wrenching disappointment – made more acute by Craig Richards’ announcement to his players in the dressing room afterwards that he will be departing as coach with immediate effect – is an acknowledgement of the progress made by the women’s game in recent times.
“We have clearly narrowed the gap and I genuinely believe that on another day we would have beaten New Zealand,” said an emotional Cunningham, who played in the England team beaten 52-4 by New Zealand at the same stage of the competition in Sydney in 2017.
“We’ve done so much hard work without being professional, and I still think we had the ability to do it, but you can’t avoid the difference it would make if we were semi-professional or professional players, because we would have the time, resource and ability to invest.
“The only consolation for us is that the sport will be in a better place for what we’ve done. I’m sure there were young girls in the crowd who have been inspired and who will go on and play and beat the Aussies and the Kiwis. This squad has the ability to do that in a few years’ time as well.”
— England Rugby League (@England_RL) November 14, 2022
Compared to the England players whose struggle to juggle day jobs was encapsulated in the pre-tournament BBC documentary ‘Women of Steel’, the vast majority of the New Zealand squad, who pulled away with two second-half tries driven by their powerful centre Mele Hufanga, play in the mostly professional women’s NRL in Australia.
In October, Leeds Rhinos became the first Women’s Super League club to announce they will pay players win bonuses and other ‘meritocratic’ payments next season, while the domestic game awaits the significant moment when its first rising star will be lured by the prospect of a full-time career Down Under.
For long-time New Zealand captain Krystal Rota, who plays her club rugby for Newcastle Knights, the performances of a number of England players throughout an impressive tournament has increased the likelihood of them beginning to feature in the NRLW.
“There is definitely a lot of talent coming through that team, and a lot of growth from where they were in the last World Cup,” Rota said. “I think quite a lot of the England players could play in the NRLW, and there would be lots of places for them if they wanted them.”
Richards’ announcement of his departure clearly caught his squad off guard, with a tearful Cunningham admitting she was “absolutely devastated” by the news, adding: “Everyone is distraught – Craig has done so much for this squad as a person as well as a coach, and he will be a big miss.”
For St Helens’ 33-year-old Amy Hardcastle, one of the stars of the women’s tournament with her pink hair and surging runs from centre, the pain of another semi-final exit will eventually be eased by an acknowledgment of the progress made since she first took up the sport at the amateur bastion of Siddal near Halifax.
“We’re trying to build the game in England and the inspiration we are giving to the younger generation is unbelievable,” Hardcastle said.
“I’m quite emotional but I’m really proud of what these girls have done for our community. The views we’ve had on TV and the crowds are just phenomenal.
“Regardless of the final scoreline, we are leaving a real legacy after this World Cup.”