England will be fighting for more than just a World Cup trophy when the women’s tournament begins at the start of November.
A better future for the women’s game in this country could also be the prize if they can win the title for the very first time.
For all the strides made in recent years with the growth of the Women’s Super League, the game remains effectively amateur at domestic level.
Participation fees and prize money are on offer for the first time at this World Cup, but England’s players will still have to manage around or sideline their full-time jobs to compete.
There is strong hope for a brighter future; the NRL Women’s Premiership (NRLW) in Australia attracts significant support and many players are now full-time, including the Jillaroos squad who are bidding to win their third World Cup crown in succession.
With New Zealand also boasting a host of NRLW stars, England are underdogs to win on home soil, but captain Emily Rudge also believes they have more to fight for as they seek to improve their own position and take the strides that have already been made Down Under.
“Hopefully this is the last World Cup where women are actually working as well as trying to be an international athlete,” said Rudge.
“This World Cup is a massive part of that. I think that if we can win the World Cup, then asking women to go back to their full-time jobs would be a difficult ask.
“We’ve got a massive part to play. Definitely getting some success in this World Cup will push that to happen sooner.
“It is (a lot of pressure on us) but there is anyway, it’s a home World Cup.
“I think we have known that since (starting) training for this a couple of years ago, that there would be a lot of pressure on us. Hopefully we’ll thrive off that.
“I think it gives us a bit of an advantage and an edge.”
But that is balanced with the disadvantage for Craig Richards’ players of training around work commitments.
“It’s difficult and at times it’s impossible,” said head coach Richards.
“I don’t know they do it. You can look at (men’s) Championship and League One that are semi-professional, but they earn a good wage. We’ve got girls travelling and earning nothing.
“We do ask a lot of them. I’ve got girls in the gym at five, six o’clock in the morning who then have to go into work. It’s hard.
“Part of what we want to do is win the World Cup but do it as great individuals and great ambassadors for the game.
“Hopefully that attracts some more money into the game and the girls can get what they deserve which is some financial support.
“If you look at the journey since I first took the role, we’ve made massive strides.
“But it needs that little bit more now, particularly if we compare ourselves to what’s happening on the other side of the world in the NRLW.
“We can’t allow that gap to get much bigger, in my opinion. We’ve got to do something special and hopefully continue to grow.”
Rudge fears that unless that gap is narrowed, there will be talent drain with England’s best young players moving to Australia to become full-time athletes.
The St Helens forward said: “I know there is a lot of talk around younger players. We’re fortunate to have a lot of talented younger players coming through and there are quite a few eyes on them, maybe wanting them to go over.
“That would be up to those girls. But I see no reason why they wouldn’t, why they couldn’t compete and be as good as those NRLW players. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them get asked to go over there.”
As it stands, the alternative is distinctly less appealing from a career perspective.
“There just aren’t enough hours in the day to do everything you want to do and do it to the best of your ability. Things do get pushed to one side,” said Rudge of the commitments as a part-time international player.
“It’s so full-on. It’s not just the training element you’ve got think about, it’s the nutrition, how much sleep you’re getting. It’s such a balancing act.
“It means I’m getting up early in the morning and training late at night, really unsociable hours where you wouldn’t want to be training but that’s what you’ve got to do.
“I’m lucky enough to have been a part of other World Cups where I’ve been in the same position, and I’m somewhat used to it now.
“For these few weeks everything else is on hold in my life and probably (the same) for every girl who is playing. It’s just rugby and work, the things you have to do.
“It’s a massive challenge but hopefully it won’t be forever.”
*Read a full guide to the women’s competition in the next edition of League Express.
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