Women's rugby league in England struggled through 2020 due to Covid-19 but this year presents an opportunity to get back on track with the World Cup looming, writes Adam Millington.
Last year’s Betfred Women’s Super League was cancelled, and the recent national lockdown has presented further challenges, although a Rugby Football League statement on the 5th January confirmed it is hoped that the England training camps in January and February will go ahead.
With the prospect that a vaccine could help Covid case numbers to drop, there is a possibility that the country may be in a better place by the time that the WSL starts and that this year’s league will not see the same fate as in 2020.
It is, however, not regarded as an elite sport and will therefore have to wait for an easing of restrictions before the competition can commence.
And with players balancing a day job alongside rugby, there may be increased worries regarding infection due to players being in close contact with more than just their teammates on a day-to-day basis.
Later this year the Rugby League World Cup will be hosted in England, with the tournament taking place in November.
Eight teams will take part in the competition across 15 days before a double-header final with the men’s event at Old Trafford.
Matches will be played at Headingley, the LNER Community Stadium, KCOM Stadium and Anfield before the final at the ground which usually hosts Manchester United football matches.
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— Rugby League World Cup 2021 (@RLWC2021) January 8, 2021
Australia have won the last two competitions and the last time a British team reached the final was in 2000.
This year, spearheaded by a competition on home soil, England have a chance to not only compete in the tournament but challenge for the title.
While the double-header final is a chance for a showpiece event to help promote the women’s game, in a similar vein to how past World Cups and events at men’s stadia have aided in the growth of women’s football in England.
What could possibly be an advantage for England in the tournament, too, is their group stage draw.
Playing Papua New Guinea, Canada, and Brazil - they have managed to avoid Australia and New Zealand, and therefore won’t face them until the semi-finals of the competition.
When she was appointed as president of the RFL in summer of last year, Clare Balding vowed to use her presidency to help grow the women’s game and earmarked the ability of the World Cup to help to grow the game in England and, in turn, the wider Northern Hemisphere.
“We don’t have the history of women’s football and most people won’t have seen the sport when the World Cup comes around,” Balding said.
“Professionalism can’t happen overnight but I think the World Cup will make a big difference in the same way it did for women’s football.
“I would also hope to spread the message to a slightly different audience and there are real opportunities. "Capitalising on the World Cup is a golden opportunity for this sport.”
Despite the new lockdown, things are already beginning to look promising for this year. On New Year’s Eve, the Gloucestershire All Golds announced that they would be forming a women’s side – the Golden Ferns.
Expansion is a frequently-discussed topic in Rugby League, but one which the men’s game has often struggled to do successfully.
In a relatively young women’s game, clubs in the south of England allow a chance to expand outside of the sport’s heartlands in the north.
The Golden Ferns will be based at the SGS College Stoke Gifford Stadium in Bristol, which was previously home to Bristol City’s women’s team.
When the news was announced that the team would be founded, England international and Rugby League World Cup 2021 ambassador Jodie Cunningham praised the fact that new teams were being created in the south.
“It’s brilliant to see the development of a new women’s team in Bristol,” she said.
“Women’s Rugby League has had such fantastic growth in recent years and creating new teams in the south of England will help to continue building momentum going into next year’s World Cup where we will see the profile and visibility of the women’s game reach heights never seen before.”
Photo credit: Action Images/Ed Sykes