2021 is a significant year for everyone involved with rugby league, but for the sport’s leading female athletes, the next few months could provide a genuine catalyst for change, after well over 550 days of uncertainty few will ever forget.
More than 18 months removed from Leeds Rhinos’ victory against Castleford Tigers in the 2019 Grand Final, the WSL will finally return , as an expanded eight-team competition kicks off. With World Cups for England’s men and women on the horizon this autumn, this is arguably the most significant season yet for a competition only founded in 2017, but wiped out completely by the pandemic last year.
The question is how much has the long break affected the undoubted momentum the women’s game had built up in recent years, with figures such as the new Rugby Football League president, Clare Balding, singing the praises of the sport.
“To say it hasn’t been ideal would be an understatement… It’s an absolutely huge year, and we’ve got to make up for lost time in a way, being out for all of last year,” the St Helens star and England captain, Emily Rudge, admits.
Leeds’ Danika Priim says: “We were constantly on the edge of our seats last year, waiting to see if we’d be able to do anything. There were so many false dawns. When it finally got cancelled, you lose all your purpose and while lockdown was tough for everyone, losing that motivation to go out and do what you love was extra tough.”
Rudge and Priim are pioneers of the women’s game, having played the sport at amateur level before the WSL was launched in 2017. “I remember drawing names out of a hat to see who would wash the kit, and checking the pitches to see if they were clean enough to play on,” Priim says. “Now we’re affiliated with professional teams, and we’ve come so far.”
“It’s difficult to put into words for those who weren’t there,” Rudge says. “The sport has grown an incredible amount. We were basically playing at amateur clubs and nobody cared. We didn’t even have a physio. But now, it’s completely going the right way towards being professional.”
The ultimate goal for the women’s game is professionalism, and with a World Cup this autumn on top of the pivotal WSL reboot, the outcome of the next few months could shape that dream. Rudge says: “This could be a real catalyst for change. Women’s rugby league is definitely growing, but it still lags behind some other sports like football. We know success in the World Cup would give us the platform to go to the next level, and I think we’re in for the strongest year yet.”
Priim agrees. “This will be the best we’ve seen the girls in the league I think,” she says. “We’re quite an old sport in terms of stereotypes, but we’re really hammering those down now. We’re getting more and more coverage and young girls are becoming inspired to pick up a rugby ball. England having success would be the big thing that takes it to the next level, though.”
Priim adds: “Seeing all the girls come back into training after over a year away has been really special. It’s an enormous year for women’s rugby league. You start to wonder where we could be as a game in a year’s time if everything goes to plan, and it’s exciting. We were worried how the break would halt our momentum, but the girls are more determined than either. I guess the proof is in the pudding, though.”