St Helens captain and World Cup Ambassador Jodie Cunningham is confident the current delay in the season will not impact too negatively on England Women’s aims of success in next autumn’s World Cup.
The Women’s Super League season was due to get underway at the end of March but, as with the rest of the game, it has been delayed indefinitely due to the current coronavirus pandemic.
The domestic season was structured in such a way this season to give the prospective international players as many tough and competitive games as possible.
All ten teams were due to play each other once before the season split with the top four each then playing each other twice more to make the top two and compete in the Grand Final. The bottom six would play each other once, leading to semi-finals and the newly introduced Shield Final.
While it is unclear how and when the season will kick-off, Cunningham strongly believes the best interest of the Women’s game will be at the heart of whatever decision is made.
“The current situation is having an impact on everything,” Cunningham told TotalRL.com.
“But at this stage, until we know when we’ll be back playing, we just don’t how much of an impact it will have on next year’s World Cup.
“The more playing time you get to practice, play and hone your skills before a tournament like that the better it is. So if we end up missing out on quite a lot of game time, then yeah it might make us less prepared for the World Cup. But equally, it’s a global crisis at the minute so it is also affecting most of the countries that will be competing, so it won’t just be affecting the England girls.
“Maybe we’ll just have to adapt, restructure and get training and games in at different times. We just have to be open to change to give us the right preparation time so that we go into next year ready to go with the mindset that it’s a World Cup year.
“I like the new format of the League season. It gives everyone a chance to play everyone else and to see what Warrington and Huddersfield, who are both new to the league are like.
“But then equally, splitting off and getting repeated competitive fixtures week after week for whoever finished in top four, will give many of those competing for England a high standard of game every week as well, which will be great for World Cup preparations.
“Dependant of when we get going, it may be that the split comes in straight away, based on last years results. But the RFL are looking at all sorts of options and have plans A, B, C, D and E in place for how the structure might be when we get going.
“There are also lots of things that can move and be cut out of season if needed. We have the Challenge Cup, and if that didn’t happen it would give us multiple extra weeks to play the league. There was also due to be another origin series mid-season, so again that would have been a couple of weeks out of the usual season, so it might be that can be moved to end of the year to free up some more league time.
“So there are lots of options that can still give us a good quality season. Whatever games we get this season the girls will make the most of it and give their all.
“With the growth of the Women’s Super League over the last couple of years, you can see how much of a priority the game now is for the RFL. I know that whatever structure we end up with will be the best possible for the game. The RFL will have thoroughly thought out and best option for all the Women’s Super League clubs as well as England. They want us to do well in the World Cup so they will structure it to make sure our potential England athletes get the best opportunities to get what need under belt ahead of the tournament.”
Whenever the season does get underway, Cunningham is confident that many of the game’s leading athletes will be ready to dive straight in after a much-improved national programme undertaken in pre-season.
At the start of March England head coach Craig Richards confirmed a 39-player National Performance squad. That group of players formed the teams for a three-match Yorkshire v Lancashire Origin series – which was won 2-0 by Cunningham’s Lancashire side after the second game ended in a draw.
“As a National Performance squad we’ve seen a much bigger group of players brought together this year,” added Cunningham.
“We almost had a full pre-season with that group as we prepared for the Origin series. We had two or three months of repeated training every weekend – getting there for 8:30 am and working right through until 1 pm. We then had three games in a week – Saturday, Wednesday and Sunday to try and replicate a World Cup situation where intense games come thick and fast.
“There are a lot of new and younger girls in that squad so we had a lot of time to bond together and get to know each other, as well as putting the work in on our core skills and working together. That, for me, was the most time we’ve ever had consecutively as a national squad in the whole time I have been in it.
“There was no way of foreseeing what was going to happen with the season being delayed, but it’s been perfect really. The whole point of us being together was to get us physically ready for the year ahead, so that as a national squad we were at that really good standard.
“But it now worked out well in terms of the current crisis, because means had a massive chunk of time together already, and went into the lockdown in the best possible shape. It means that if we can maintain it as much as we can as individual athletes then we can go back into playing in the best possible way we can.
“It is difficult to keep it up, but we’re all working hard to make going back into training and playing as seamless as possible.
“At Saints as well we’re all keeping in touch and doing sessions via zoom and making sure everyone is ok.
“Before the Women’s Super League, us female players wouldn’t have had the support we’ve got now. We have got set physio and S&C coach for the Women’s team and they’re sending us work that we should be doing – that’s through having the support from the club.
“It’s about that professionalism now. Which every team you play for, there is a huge amount of pride in representing that Super League Club and a lot of competition to be able to wear that shirt. We all know we can’t sit at home and do nothing and it’s up to you to do what you can.
“Everyone’s situation at the moment is different, everyone has different facilities they can use at home and everyone has different work commitments. At Saints, we have some girls that work for the NHS, others who are on furlough and some who are working from home so everyone’s requirements are different. But we all understand each other and we’re each getting work adapted to us and what we’re in a position to do.
“Doing this will hopefully ensure that when get back playing there is not a dip in standards. We want to hit the ground running whenever we get back.”