Sport

‘We want to emulate them’: could England women’s rugby league side be the next Lionesses?

All sports are furiously plotting how to exploit the success of the Lionesses’s Euro 2022 triumph but when you drill down to the details, perhaps there is none better placed to ride the wave – with the exception of football, naturally – than rugby league.

After all, this is a sport that has made its own remarkable strides in recent years when it comes to the growth of its women’s game. The foundation of the Women’s Super League in 2017 enabled rugby league’s best female players to move into the spotlight via affiliations with clubs such as Leeds and St Helens. Crowds are on the up, double-headers alongside men’s Super League matches are frequently televised, and there is boundless optimism about the future of the domestic game.

But the real key for women’s rugby league comes in the shape of this year’s World Cup, which like the women’s Euros is being staged in England: a chance to genuinely replicate what the Lionesses have achieved by winning a major tournament on home soil. “We want to emulate exactly what they’ve done, win a tournament and do it in the style they did, entertaining people,” says the Leeds and England half-back Courtney Winfield-Hill. “Women’s rugby league has an enormous opportunity to build on the Lionesses.”

The Australian-born Winfield-Hill has been at the coalface of a surge in women’s sport before. She was part of the inaugural women’s Big Bash cricket competition before switching to rugby league, moving to England and joining Leeds when the WSL was launched. Success in a World Cup shown on terrestrial television could catapult the likes of Winfield-Hill, Emily Rudge and Jodie Cunningham into the mainstream.

“When the girls that came before me were playing in fields with nobody watching, this was probably the furthest thing from their minds,” Winfield-Hill says. “But it’s up to us to take advantage of what’s happened with the Lionesses this autumn.

England’s Courtney Winfield-Hill during the match against France in June.
England’s Courtney Winfield-Hill (right) during the match against France. ‘Women’s rugby league has an enormous opportunity to build on the Lionesses,’ she says. Photograph: Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com/Shutterstock

“They’ve made people stand up and talk about women’s sport. It’s probably helped put other sports like ours into the conversation. I’m not a football fan really but even I was taking notice and I guess that’s the point – it made everyone think about women’s sport.”

World Cup organisers are waiting to see if there is an uptick in ticket sales this autumn but the early signs are good. England’s group opener against Brazil on 1 November is on course to break the UK record for a standalone game of women’s rugby in either code, while several Super League clubs have reported increased interest from supporters in the remainder of the WSL season.

The Rugby Football League is privately plotting how to build on the Lionesses’ success, too. It has launched the InspiredBy programme, partly aimed at getting more girls and women involved in rugby league and building on the success of the Lionesses and the Commonwealth Games. Post-World Cup, the game has planned a series of initiatives to capitalise on any success, too.

St Helens fans celebrate after beating Leeds Rhinos in the Betfred Women’s Super League Grand Final in May.
St Helens fans celebrate after beating Leeds Rhinos in the Betfred Women’s Super League Grand Final in May.
Photograph: George Wood/Getty Images

That includes the England players delivering sessions in local communities to allow young girls who have hopefully been inspired by the World Cup to meet their role models and generate extra buzz around the sport. But the silver bullet for the women’s game is being in a position to allow its players to go full-time, a dream that could take a step closer to becoming a reality with World Cup success on home soil.

“I do think we’re still a long way away from that,” Winfield-Hill says. “There’s some brilliant work going in on the ground at domestic level, and internationally we’re very strong and capable of competing with anyone. But the consistency across the board in the WSL isn’t quite there between the best-resourced and least-resourced club. More central funding from our sporting bodies is what we need, really.

“I’ve seen it work successfully with cricket in Australia. The more bodies and authorities you get investing in a game, the closer you’ll get to full-time players. We do need more of that in rugby league, but hopefully the Lionesses have shown the world women’s sport is worth investing in. It’s now up to us as players to follow that in the World Cup. Winning it would be a huge silver bullet for our growth.”

The Lionesses have clearly shown how women’s sport can reach heights nobody felt possible as recently as a few years ago. Rugby league has significantly more obstacles to clear when it comes to funding and mainstream attention, but it is clear now that success on home soil for an England team changes the landscape for a sport like nothing else. The platform has been laid: it is now up to the women’s game to deliver.

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