By Oli Breslin
The Army Ladies Rugby League team are on the march – and making a little bit of history after reaching the Grand Final of the Challenge Shield.
It is the first time the side have reached a final, and they are now just 80 minutes away from winning the first piece of silverware in their 10 year existence.
It is an incredible feat for a team that play just once a month and enter just two cup competitions a season, as well as having the commitments that come with serving in the Armed Forces, and the Ladies’ success this year will certainly go a long way to promote rugby league within the Army.
The XIII-player code was banned within the Army until 1994, and while over the past 23 years rugby league has continued to grow, the development of the Ladies team has not been plain sailing.
“When I took over the team it had a bit of a collapse and only 6 players turned up,” Army Ladies coach Chris Abel said.
“Now we have around 40 players in the squad but normally get around 23 to training as they all have full-time jobs in the Army.
“Both union and league draw from the same pool of players and union are more established with better financial support to attract players so we have to rely on the games physical appeal to get players in the team.
“Rugby league is still a minor sport looking for support (such as sponsors) to help it grow and develop.
But there is no better promotion for the game than success on the field, and after a hard-fought semi-final victory over Batley, the team will taste Grand Final rugby league for the first time when they take on York City Knights Ladies on July 30th.
“We are very proud to be in the final,” Abel added. “The ladies are making a bit of rugby league history just by being in the final. If we won I think it would be a huge achievement and great publicity for Army Rugby League and Women’s RL in general.”
Full-back Sarah Ashton, now in her second season with the Army Ladies, expressed her delight in her side’s achievement.
“Once that final whistle went in the semi-final and we were through to the final, it was an amazing feeling, everyone was overwhelmed,” she said.
“If we were to win the Shield I think it would have a big impact with Army Rugby League – it will put our mark on rugby and show that the women are a team to notice.
“The men’s team has had some good publicity recently and it would show that we’re up there with them.
“Not only that but it would help us with new and upcoming players and it will bring more people into the sport.
Bradford-born Ashton works as a dog handler in the Army and admits that it can be difficult balancing her role and playing rugby league.
“My unit is really good at releasing me for rugby and support me, however my job has to come first,” she added. “At times it’s hard but I don’t get paid to play rugby, I get paid to do my job.”
But Abel, who had spells with Farnborough Falcons and Nottingham Outlaws before taking up his role with the Army Ladies team in 2015, believes that rugby league definitely has benefits that can help the ladies in their Army roles.
“Rugby League develops all the qualities that the Army look for such as discipline, teamwork, controlled aggression and physical fitness,” she said.
“The future looks good but we need to keep recruiting and developing. Our ultimate goal would be to win the Challenge Cup one day.”
As the game continues to grow, Ashton is positive about the future of Women’s Rugby League, citing the development of the Women’s Super League and more media coverage of the game.
“In general it is getting better; especially for the bigger teams such as Bradford and Thatto Heath – they’re getting the right recognition such as games going to be aired on Sky Sports and more girls coming up and entering open-age teams,” she said.
The Army Ladies will take on York City Knights Ladies in the Challenge Shield Grand Final on Sunday 3oth July at Heworth ARLFC, kick-off 1.00pm.