Talking Grassroots: The potential of women’s University Rugby League

Spectators at the Millennium Stadium, Post Office Road, Featherstone eight days ago – and there were plenty of them, around 1,500, I’m glad to say – were treated to an entertaining double-header in the Women’s Amateur Rugby League’s annual Easter Sunday extravaganza. 

Featherstone Lionesses beat West Leeds 24-10 in the Challenge Cup Final while, in the Plate Final, Leeds University posted a 46-20 win over Liverpool University.

For all that the main game was utterly compelling – both in reality and in anticipation – it was the opening match that I’d been looking forward to most, given that it involved student teams. I wasn’t disappointed and nor, judging by the atmosphere around me, were the fans, for whom the performance of the mercurial Becky Grady, who scored five tries and five goals for Leeds, was probably worth the price of admission itself. 

The halfback was simply brilliant, getting her side into gear with a long range try after Liverpool had had the better of early exchanges, at least territorially. Choosing the player of the match, which is perhaps the aspect of my job that I least enjoy, was on this occasion easy. 

Not that there weren’t other eye-catching displays, as noted by Andrew Cudbertson, who has long been involved with Leeds University Rugby League (more than involved, in fact – he courageously launched it, back in 1967, together with Cec Thompson).

Andrew has kindly offered his reflections, elsewhere in this issue, on the occasion. And he has proffered his thoughts on how Women’s Rugby League can develop in our universities and, perhaps, get back to where it was in the 1990s.

I had a good chat with him late last week and, as he states in today’s article, he laments the fact that many female Rugby League players who attend university end up playing rugby union because there’s no RL team in place. 

That, obviously, needs to be addressed, although it’s easier said than done. Currently we have three Women’s student sides – Leeds and Liverpool, obviously, plus Manchester – all of whom have to play in the ‘winter-based’ WARL competition, whose fixtures take place on Sundays.

It seems to me that, for the time being at least, the WARL leagues could be the route forward for the students. Women wishing to play rugby at university could sign up for union on Wednesdays, and for League on Sundays. That way, many union players could sample the 13-a-side code for the first time and, I’d imagine, find that they enjoy having more opportunities to run with the ball and to pass it, not to mention having a chance to tackle. A solution, potentially, anyway. Perhaps the option could be investigated, preferably by League-reared students talking new-found mates reared on 15-a-side to give it a go.

On which theme, I wonder what happened to the Heworth Ladies side that played York Acorn Ladies in 1985? I ask the question because, as I pen this piece, I’m browsing through the excellent booklet ‘The Villagers – 100 years of Rugby League at Heworth RLFC’ and there they are, permed and pictured prior to a game that raised £1,000 for charity.

I suspect the fixture was a one-off, arranged entirely as a fundraiser, but the feature is just one of many fascinating snippets to be found in a real labour of love produced by Peter Ulliott. I strongly recommend that fans of amateur Rugby League (sorry, correct that – ALL Rugby League fans) buy it. It’s a riveting read about one of the grandest clubs you can come across. And I’m glad to say that Peter’s not mentioned a game I played in, against Heworth on their palatial Elm Park Way ground, in which our coach, miffed at our performance the previous week, put the six forwards in the backs and six of the backs in the pack – keeping me at fullback. Not a happy experience for any of us in the days of contested scrums, I can tell you. Peter’s done right to ignore an event he was probably unaware of anyway and focus on his booklet being a happy read. 

Heworth, who were the first National Conference League champions in 1985-86 (it was called, back then, the National League) are, I think, on an upwards curve in the NCL and are currently pushing for promotion from Division Two. The current campaign is taking shape in terms of title, promotion and relegation issues and OuRLeague viewers who enjoyed the first match to be screened the other week, between Cumbrian rivals Wath Brow Hornets and Egremont Rangers, have another treat in store this Saturday, with the selected game being Hunslet Club Parkside and West Hull. I’m not sure whether Hunslet Moor will provide quite as picturesque a backdrop as did the Lake District for Hornets v Rangers (as a Hunslet bloke, I think I’m allowed to say that) but it’s pleasant enough round there, and not too far away from Middleton Railway, which is the oldest railway line in the world. So if you’re going to the match, try to sample that wonderful diversion as well. If not, try to take in a game elsewhere – otherwise, tune in and enjoy. 

Three days earlier, on the Wednesday, there’s some special Rugby League to sample. The Men’s President’s Cup reaches its second stage, with Castleford outfit Lock Lane hosting a double-header in which England Universities play Great Britain Police at 6.00pm, while UK Armed Forces meet Great Britain Teachers at 8.00pm. A night to savour, I think, although folk in the area are spoiled for choice as just down the road, at Featherstone Rovers, there’s a Year 11 Champion Schools Finals double-header in which the girls of Castleford Academy and Corpus Christi (Leeds) face off at 5.30pm, with the boys’ decider, between St Benedict’s (Whitehaven) and St Cuthbert’s (St Helens) starting at 7.00pm. Take your pick – both options look good to me. 

The 2022 Southern Conference League, though, got off to an inauspicious start on Saturday with three of four fixtures postponed. Let’s hope things quickly pick up in what is an important competition.

Finally, my old friend Mark Chestney is working on completing a book charting the history of the National Conference League, going right back to that memorable first season I referred to earlier, and I’m helping him with what is a fascinating and, I think, important project. Hopefully we’ll have managed to speak to all clubs in the near future so – watch this space!

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