With equal participation fees to the men, prize money for the first time and a mainstream platform, this year’s Rugby League World Cup represents a seminal moment for the women’s game. And if it is Emily Rudge and her England teammates lifting the trophy this autumn, there will be one group of women watching on with particular pride at how far the game has come since they took a leap into the unknown 26 years ago.
Rudge, the captain, and the leading female players will go into camp and be treated like professionals this autumn, just as they have been in the run-up to Saturday’s friendly against France. Warrington-born Rudge will helm an England side that kickstart a double-header at her hometown’s Halliwell Jones Stadium, followed by the men’s team taking on a combined nations all-star squad. The preparations for a groundbreaking tour in 1996 could hardly have been more different.
“We were lucky if we could get a professional team to let us in back then,” says Lisa McIntosh, one of the stars of the British Lionesses’ trip to Australia in 1996. “Halifax hosted us for 10 minutes at half-time once, we played a game on the pitch while the punters were having a pie and a pint.”
Brenda Dobek, who later coached Rudge with England, adds: “We couldn’t really worry about training because we had to self-fund the Australia trip ourselves. We needed to raise money just to get there, and the girls nowadays can thankfully just worry about playing. There was no help back then. You name it, we did it. Car-boot sales, sponsored walks, bucket collections – even bag-packing in supermarkets.”
Women’s rugby league has made incredible strides in recent years. The introduction of the Women’s Super League in 2017 resulted in a surge of interest but the pandemic put paid to that, with the competition cancelled in 2020. It was able to restart in 2021 thanks to funding from the National Lottery, which remains instrumental as the World Cup approaches.
“There were a few months when we were sat around worrying if all that momentum was going to be lost,” Rudge says. “We weren’t allowed to train, teams couldn’t get together and it has a massive impact on the development of the game. The fact we could get up and running quicker with that funding was incredible. I think we’d have lost so much momentum without it. It could have completely derailed us.”
None of this would be possible without McIntosh, Dobek and the Lionesses’ historic tour. It was the first time a women’s side from Britain had toured overseas and, while the significance of the trip was overlooked at the time, those involved can now look back and understand what a breakthrough moment it was, not least because the Lionesses won the three-match series against Australia 2-1.
“It was all unknown to us really,” McIntosh says. “We just wanted to play. We weren’t really aware nobody had gone out there and beaten Australia on their own turf. Australia and New Zealand played each other all the time and we just wanted to muscle in and be part of it really.”
Dobek recalls: “We were only out there for 12 days and played every other day, basically. We had no recovery time, minimal players because of the funding and the accommodation wasn’t exactly first-class. But it was the start of something and it’s really grown into something special, not least because of National Lottery funding that’s provided the stage for the girls to shine on this year.”
Rudge, who remembers the time before the WSL when crowds barely reaching 100 watched women’s rugby league, will not have to head to her local supermarket to pack bags raising funds for England’s World Cup campaign. But before the first match, against Brazil in Leeds on 1 November, she will remind her players of the sacrifices and commitment those before them have made in order to give them this opportunity.
“It’s so easy for younger players to forget what those before us have had to do,” she says. “They didn’t have the same opportunities or the funding we’ve got. I think some of the girls don’t know how lucky they are. It’s so important that girls realise the tough times previous players have had just to pull on a shirt. Now, girls are given huge support to help them get to this point.”
McIntosh, Dobek and co already have their place assured as trailblazers for women’s sport. Now, the opportunity is looming for Rudge and her teammates to take a similar position and potentially take the game to even greater heights with World Cup success.
“The thought of winning a World Cup on home soil is incredible,” Rudge says. “We’d see a whole new generation of players in years to come and there’s only going to be more funding put into the sport when there’s success. So that will help grow the sport even more and get more people watching the sport. The potential is huge, it adds to the pressure, but that’s why we’re here.”