England and St Helens star Jodie Cunningham believes this year’s Rugby League World Cup is a critical building block in transforming participation and growth of the women’s game in the UK, writes Jonny Bray.
For the first time, the Women's Rugby League World Cup will be played alongside the men and wheelchair tournaments, with all participants being paid the same and all 61 matches being broadcast live.
The 2021 Woman of Steel, who started in a 32-6 win against Wales on Sunday ahead of another fascinating friendly fixture against France this weekend, believes now is the time to cash in on the increased spotlight on the game.
The sixth edition of the tournament will be held in England between 15th October and 19th November 2022 – and Cunningham is convinced the game is ready and waiting to explode.
"Even without the pandemic, this World Cup was going to be the biggest opportunity that rugby league has had to grow the sport in many years," said Cunningham, speaking at Ashton Bears ARLFC.
"We need to grab that with both hands, absolutely.
"You add in the pandemic on top of that, and I think it makes it even more important that we take hold of this opportunity we have got, with the World Cup on home soil, to grow the sport of rugby league.
"We need to showcase what rugby league can do on every level, not just on the pitch.
"People who watch rugby league know how fantastic the athletes who play the game are and how exciting the product can be on the field.
"On top of that, we need to highlight all the fantastic work that rugby league does for its communities across England.
"The World Cup itself has amazing social impact programmes that are being delivered.
— Rugby League World Cup 2021 (@RLWC2021) June 13, 2022
"All that stuff is massively important, and the World Cup is that absolute pinnacle of the sport that will allow us to showcase that with all the eyes on us."
Almost the entire women’s Rugby League 2020 season was lost to the Covid-19 pandemic, which risked interrupting the significant momentum across all formats of the girls’ and women’s game.
The National Lottery provided the support required to recommence the Women’s Super League and between 2022-2027 over £9.3M of funding will be used to support the development of Rugby League, with more than £1.8M being invested this year.
Cunningham, who hailed the investment, was key in England's win against Wales, starting at 13, and can look ahead to taking on Brazil, Canada and Papua New Guinea in Pool A.
The 30-year-old is also a community engagement lead for the tournament.
The Women's Rugby League World Cup will feature eight teams, an increase of two from the previous tournament.
And Cunningham admitted that, following the Covid-19 pandemic, she learnt to appreciate the game even more than she did before.
She added: "Coming out of that pandemic, I think it gave us all a real understanding of how much we miss it when it is not there.
"It is a chance for us all to come together again and celebrate how much we love rugby league, and we can hopefully get even more fans of the game involved.
"I'm hoping there will be thousands of young girls at home, watching and seeing an incredible breakaway try from an England star.
"I want them to stop and say, 'mum, dad, that is what I want to do.
"They could be the next England star, so it is all about inspiring the next generation, and we have got a huge opportunity now to do that."
The National Lottery is an official partner of this year’s Rugby League World Cup. The partnership includes National Lottery players providing £750,000 of vital financial support to communities across England through the RLWC21 CreatedBy Grants Programme, while funding has also helped save the Women’s & Girls’ game during the pandemic.