Women with ambition

Fran Goldthorp of England in action during the match against Brazil

I recently attended the match between Huddersfield Giants and Wakefield Trinity and found myself sitting at a dinner table with a local family consisting of a married couple and their two daughters.

The two girls were aged 14 and 9 and both are rugby league players for their relevant age-group sides at community clubs.

I talked to them about their experiences and both girls obviously loved playing rugby league and wanted to continue doing so for the foreseeable future. Both parents were equally enthusiastic about their daughters’ sporting love.

It was thoroughly enjoyable to meet them and heartening to hear the girls talking about our sport with such enthusiasm.

The older one was a winger and was well aware that she could have ambitions to play professionally in Australia if she wanted to follow in the footsteps of some British players who have gone out there to play in the NRLW this season.

That simple encounter illustrates in its own small way the remarkable transformation we have seen in both rugby league and women’s and girls’ sport this century.

Women’s sport has never been stronger in the various football codes, with the FIFA Women’s World Cup under way in Australia and New Zealand and attracting record crowds in two of the limited number of countries in which football of the round-ball variety doesn’t claim top spot in the sporting pecking order.

In the opening match of the tournament, New Zealand registered an underdog win against Norway in front of a record crowd of 42,137 at Eden Park in Auckland, while the Australians defeated Ireland in front of 75,784 at Sydney’s Accor Stadium, which was marginally higher than the 75,342 who had attended the final State of Origin game a week or so earlier at the same venue.

Women’s football has travelled an incredible journey when you consider that in the twentieth century it was banned in many countries, including England, where it was outlawed from 5th December 1921, with the FA stating that “the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and should not be encouraged.”

That ban, which was also followed in Wales and Scotland, lasted for almost 50 years until, in 1969, the Women’s Football Association was formed. Following that, in 1971, the FA announced that the ban on women’s football would be lifted.

And now the England Lionesses are playing in a tournament that can draw crowds to rival State of Origin crowds in Australia.

As far as I’m aware, women were never banned from playing rugby league in the early years of the last century, although the governing bodies certainly didn’t give them any encouragement.

For example, in Sydney in 1921, two women’s teams played a game of rugby league in front of a crowd reported to be around 30,000, with a photograph of the game appearing in The Times in 1922, but pressure from the authorities nipped the women’s game in the bud.

It wasn’t until the 1970s that the women’s game really started to take shape before international competition started to blossom in the 1990s.

Brenda Dobek, Sally Milburn and Lisa McIntosh, who were all inducted into the inaugural Women’s Rugby League Hall of Fame last year, were involved when Great Britain toured Australia in 1996, defeating the hosts.

Since then, we’ve seen the women’s game take off in England, particularly after the creation of the Women’s Super League in 2017, and we’ve seen the creation of the Women’s Rugby League World Cup.

But it’s in Australia where the most impressive development has taken place, with ten teams playing in the NRLW competition this season, having kicked off with the Gold Coast playing North Queensland on 22nd July, with five games every weekend and all of them being shown on Sky Sports.

Already several English players have signed professional contracts and headed out to Australia to play their part in the NRLW.

Fran Goldthorp (pictured), formerly of Leeds Rhinos, will play for the Titans, Hollie-Mae Dodd has left York Valkyrie to join Canberra Raiders, and Georgia Roche, the first player to ever win the Woman of Steel award in 2018, is settling into life as a Newcastle Knight after leaving Leeds and securing a five-year contract with her new club.

I was talking to one Super League Chairman recently who predicted that in five years’ time, the women’s game in the southern hemisphere could be bigger than the men’s game in the northern hemisphere.

That was perhaps illustrated by the attendance of 18,275 for the standalone Women’s State of Origin game between Queensland and New South Wales at the Queensland Country Bank Stadium in Townsville in June.

It would be good to think that we could keep up with that rate of progress in England and that young women like the ones I met in Huddersfield won’t have to head to Australia if they want to become professional female rugby league players.

First published in Rugby League World magazine, Issue 487 (August 2023)

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