Women’s rugby league has made some encouraging strides in the four years since the formation of the Women’s Super League. However, on Saturday afternoon the sport will be presented with perhaps its most significant moment yet as it is showcased to the nation for the first time.
The men’s Challenge Cup semi-finals will be staged in a double-header live on the BBC, but before those the final of the women’s competition will also be screened on national television for the first time, as St Helens and York City Knights square off in Leigh.
The game will draw the largest-ever watching audience for a game of women’s rugby league, and it is a moment of significance which is not lost on those who have been around long before the creation of the Super League. In a year which could end with World Cup success on home soil for England, major coverage for women’s rugby league this weekend feels like a line in the sand moment.
“I’ve been lucky enough to play for a long time, and I’ve seen the way things used to be,” says Emily Rudge, the England captain and St Helens second-row. “When we started the women’s game, we were playing in parks and nobody was watching. Now, we’ve got Super League stadiums, we’re affiliated with Super League teams and this weekend, to be on the BBC, it’s a huge moment.”
As with any final, there is pressure on all those involved to secure victory. But there is also the pressure of delivering a memorable spectacle as the women’s game takes its first tentative steps into the mainstream before what could be a transformative few months for the sport, should the World Cup go to plan for Craig Richards’s England side.
“There’s a huge responsibility to show the women’s game at its best,” says Richards, who is also the head of rugby at St Helens. “There’s been some negative press surrounding some blow-out scores in the Women’s Super League so far this year, so we’re hoping this is closer and highly skilled.
“Hopefully people who’ve never seen the women’s game before will be impressed. There’s responsibility there for all of us, because we know it could be the start of something new for the women’s game in terms of reaching into new audiences and attracting new supporters.”
Rudge and St Helens are undoubtedly favourites, but York have recruited a number of international players in recent weeks, and enter the final quietly confident of another upset having defeated Castleford 32-4 in the semi-finals.
But even this week, with so much on the line on the field, the focus has repeatedly drifted to the wider effect that the final could have for years to come. “It’s massive for our sport,” says Lindsay Anfield, the York director of rugby. “It’s huge that the broadcasters are buying into what the girls are doing, and the skill level they obviously have. Yes, it’s a different game to the men’s one, but it’s a sport that is making some great strides forward. It seems to be doing that every single year, and we obviously hope that continues.”
There is also plenty of support from the men’s game, too. Both St Helens sides will be in action, as the men’s team look to reach Wembley when they face Hull in the first of the two semi-finals that will follow the women’s final. “It’s going to be a great day for the club and the town,” says the St Helens captain, James Roby. “But more than that, it’s going to be great for the women’s game. I’ve been watching for a while, and it’s gathering momentum at a great pace.
“Getting the final on the BBC is fantastic for them. I’ve got a young daughter, and as she grows up I’d love her to have opportunities to progress in sport like this. It’s all going in the right direction, and long may it continue. I’m so glad the girls are getting these opportunities, and I think it bodes well for the future. We’ll be watching as much of the game as we can before ours, and hopefully cheering the Saints girls on.”
That support from the stars of the men’s game like Roby is one thing. But the likes of Rudge, who were around in the days before the Women’s Super League, know that playing in a Challenge Cup final at Leigh Sports Village is not the pinnacle for the women’s game.
“We want to play at Wembley alongside the men,” she says. “We want the women’s game on an equal platform and that’s where we will get it to. This is a great step in the right direction, but to have both finals at the same venue. why not? Let’s dream big.”