The descent of England’s squads in Perpignan this past weekend provided league fans a craved international fixture, following the postponement of the Rugby League World Cup until 2022. More prominently, the triumph of the women’s 40-4 win against the French side made history, being the first women’s rugby league international match broadcast live on television.
With many praising the steps being made to raise the women’s sport up to the level of their male counterparts, Saturday’s broadcasting throws a mask over equality within the sport; despite the coverage, the players are yet to receive a professional contract.
Both teams had a shaky start to the game, albeit understandably so considering the emotions tied into the players’ first appearance on live TV. The first 20 minutes were nervy, seeing unforced errors arising from each side. England head coach Craig Richard’s favored a combination of both experience and youth, with the likes of St Helens’ Rachael Woosey and Savannah Andrade of York City Knights making their debuts. Both players have impressed in the women’s rugby super league this season.
A run of quick plays saw Amy Hardcastle take the first try of the match in the 25th minute, alleviating the early nerves. England began to settle into play, digging away into the French defense to close the first half at 16-0.
With the second half came the emergence of France’s defense packing up for a tackle, with hopes of dismantling the English attacks early. This tactic was consistently stuck with by the French throughout the 80 minutes. Nonetheless, this left gaps in their defensive line, exploited by players including Captain Emily Rudge who scored 2 of England’s 7 tries on her record-breaking 24th appearance for the squad. This achievement is made all the more impressive considering Rudge has had to work full time as a teacher throughout her career.
The expectation that players have to balance training and club commitments alongside a full time job demonstrates a shocking lack of support from the team they represent, leaving the women’s sport in somewhat of a purgatory. Advancement of the game over the past 10-20 years is clearly evident yet a stalemate is reached whereby the progression into a truly professional standard is inhibited through our reluctance to pay our female athletes a professional wage.
When the Red Roses faced Wales earlier this year, it was the first time a women’s squad had been assembled for a rugby league fixture at the Test level. Arguably, this shows the necessity for development of the sport at the international level to justify the need for pro contracts. However, this in itself feeds into a cycle of the sport and its standard not being deemed attractive enough by investors and fans, but in the meantime, the lack of financial support for its players prevents them from reaching this breakthrough in the first place.
Nonetheless, England Women’s Rugby Union squad were awarded professional contracts back in 2019, proof alone of the strides being made for equal opportunity in the sport, which raises hope that rugby league can follow in its footsteps. Most importantly, the Rugby League World Cup, being held across England in late 2022, has strived to drastically level the playing field across all aspects of its tournament, with mens and womens squads on equal pay, in addition to all squads competing simultaneously in one large integrative tournament. In light of this, rugby league does have the foundations to be a pioneering sport for inclusivity and equality, but only once we see the actions and steps being made to reinforce its enthusiastic vision.