Women’s rugby league: Gaining ground

Have you ever wondered what the state of women’s rugby league is like in this country? With the World Cup just around the corner, how is the international women’s game faring?

In terms of exposure, how big is the gap between the men’s and women’s game?

Super League promotes itself as a family sport, one that encourages whole families to attend matches. Women play a vital role in rugby league, from the grassroots game up to the professional ranks.

Failure to ignore that role that women and girls fill, and to give them opportunities to engage further in the sport as much as males, is short-sighted and doing our sport a diservice.

Rugby league has long had the image of being a macho, male-dominated and physically-exhausting code since its creation. But attitudes are changing and the female component of rugby league is expanding around the world.

Love Rugby League writer Jack Wynne delved into the women’s game to guage the state of play.

The Rugby Football League introduced a raft of changes ahead of the current season, including a new league structure, in the hope of boosting the sport.

Mark Brennan, who is the head coach of the Ladies team at Thatto Heath Crusaders, believes there is a lot of work to be done.

“At the minute I would say the game is OK. There are more teams getting involved,” he says.

“For me the profile is not as good as it could be. If you draw comparisons with female rugby union and football it is clear to see we are way behind as a sport.”

Increasing exposure is key to improving the women’s game, according to Brennan.

“When you read the rugby league press there is very little on the women’s game.

“For the international scene to progress, I think there needs to be some form of stage to present the sport, for example a game of the week.

“Rugby union has far more exposure and it can have a big effect on whether a young girl decides to play union over league.”

“People need to realize that some of the best community coaches will be on show in the women’s game.

“When the men’s team from Batley came and watched they commented on the good standard being played.”

Brennan also spoke of the difference between how the women’s game is promoted in this country compared with Australia.

“As part of the State of Origin series, there is a women’s game as well which has been part of the programme for the past 16 years.”

The fact that the southern hemisphere nation, as well as New Zealand, seems to put more time and focus into the game would reflect the recent surge in the number of women taking up the sport there.

Last year the NRL announced a 26% rise in the number of women and girls playing rugby league.

This follows more routes for women to become involved being designed by the NRL, such as the NRL Legends Shield, which included girls for the first time.

The Harvey Norman Women in League initiative is another concept which was set up to embrace the role of women in the sport.

This programme doesn’t just encourage women to start playing rugby league but it also offers support for them to become coaches, administrators and club members.

Back in 2012, there were 172 registered female coaches – a 100% increase from the previous year.

In addition, there was a 20% rise in the number of females registering to play rugby league.

These figures would seem to indicate that a plan which encourages women to become coaches and administrators as well as players goes a long way to improving the state of the women’s game.

Tests between the Australian and New Zealand women’s teams are becoming proper events, with the latest held before the Anzac Test in Newcastle and televisied on national TV. Matches between the Jillaroos and Silver Ferns are also part of the Auckland Nines schedule.

Any who has watched these encounters would be impressed by the skill sets and the physically on show by these antipodean rivals.

Another way in which the sport could move forward in this country would be to significantly increase the standard of the competition, according to Bradford Bulls Ladies head coach Mark Prescott.

“I think the women’s game is still evolving and developing but there are big differences between the standard at big clubs and the rest,” Prescott says.

“There aren’t enough teams at a similar level to provide a competitive league.

“The RFL need to try and upscale the teams so that there is a stronger competition.”

Prescott did praise the introduction of the Associations Cup, which includes the Great Britain Armed Forces, Great Britain Teachers, England Students as well as The Lionesses.

This was set up in 2014 as a way of helping teams to prepare for the next World Cup.

However, Prescott believes there is still major room for improvement and agreed with Brennan on the popularity of the sport.

“It is not hard to spot that cricket, football and rugby union are much further ahead than rugby league.

“Those sports have a much higher appeal to any budding females who want to get involved.”

A common theme seems to be developing – rugby union is more attractive to women than rugby league.

Mina Patel, who is the manager of Leigh Miners Ladies, is another coach who shares this view.

“I think there is a greater level of exposure surrounding women’s rugby union,” she admits.

“There are more rugby union matches which are televised.”

Patel did cite the Associations Cup as a positive step which has helped to make a difference but she believes more work is required.

“I think the sport needs a lot more promotion. There seems to be an image issue with the sport.

“Rugby league is actually quite useful for developing key skills in life such as communication and confidence.

“You also learn the ability to deal with difficult situations.”

It is clear there are people who think the game could be better, but it is worth remembering the progress which has been made in the last few years.

Wakefield have recently launched their own women’s team, the first Super League side to do so. In February Championship Bradford started their own women’s side.

In 2013 Her Rugby League Association was set up to promote and celebrate the involvement of women in the sport. It holds special events, networking get-togethers, training and menotring opportunities for its members. Her RLA is chaired by Sky Sports journalist Angela Powers.

Craig Taylor, who is the Women & Girls Development Officer at Batley Bulldogs, thinks the women’s game has made positive steps.

“I believe it has improved vastly to what it was. The introduction of a two-division under-16 competition has been great in helping player development.

“Over the next two years that will pay off in the women’s game.”

Taylor’s views are echoed by Matthew Bullough, who is the head coach of the Oulton Raidettes.

“I think it is quite healthy from where it has been. Participation wise, it’s growing,” he says.

“Last year an under 16s and an under 12s league were set up and there are a lot more women’s teams this year.

“The Associations Cup has also been useful for the women’s game.

“A lot more players are also being exposed to a high level of coaching which is really important.”

There may have been positive steps but there is more which needs to be done, according to Bullough.

“The RFL need to do more. There needs to be greater exposure. The women’s game needs more media attention.

“There are a lot more resources in women’s rugby union and football.”

Rugby league may never be able to match the funds through at the female game that other codes do. But women’s rugby league can still grow and prosper, especially by creating a proper pathway and increased competition.

England international and Thatto Heath Crusaders fullback Jodie Cunningham believes significant progress has been made, more specifically the transition between girl’s and women’s rugby league.

“There are a lot of really good youngsters coming through. Most of the team are between 16 and 20 which reflects how the girl’s game is growing.

“In my opinion, the earlier they are playing the better.”

However, Cunningham does believe that the RFL could do more to improve the state of the women’s game.

“I think more awareness of the game is needed. An idea might be to hold curtain raisers at Super League games which may well encourage women to get involved.

“I know Featherstone Rovers have taken on a women’s team and more clubs need to follow suit. An affiliation to the men’s side would be really good moving forward.

“Also I think there is an image problem. It is a very male-dominated sport and most people are shocked. They think it is touch rugby.”

Whilst there maybe those who believe the game is nowhere near as good as it could be James Shuttleworth, who is a Club and Competition Manager at the RFL, thinks the sport is on the right track.

“There are closer links to girls rugby league which is helping to aid the development of players and encourage participation,” he says.

“The introduction of the Merit League this season has also been good and helped to remove obstacles.

“The new system is now less formal which captures interest and helps to get games on.”

Whilst the good signs are there, Shuttleworth admits the standard of competition could be better.

“The top division is still a bit lob-sided. There are three teams who are very good and unfortunately they become victims of their own success.”

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