OWith equal entry fees for men, first-time cash prizes and a mainstream platform, this year’s Rugby World Cup represents a watershed moment for women’s football. And if it is Emily Rudge and her England teammates who lift the trophy this fall, there will be a group of women who will look with particular pride on how far they have come since stepping into the unknown 26 years ago. year.
Rudge, the captain, and key players will go to camp and be treated like professionals this fall, just as they were treated heading into Saturday’s friendly against France. Warrington-born Rudge will lead an England side that kick off a double-header at the Halliwell Jones Stadium in his hometown, followed by the men’s side taking on a Combined Nations All-Star team. Preparations for a breakthrough tour in 1996 could hardly have been more different.
“We were lucky if we could get a professional team to let us in at the time,” 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 had a pie and a pint.
Brenda Dobek, who later coached Rudge with England, added: “We couldn’t really worry about training as we had to fund the trip to Australia ourselves. We needed to fundraise just to make it happen, and girls these days can thankfully care about playing. There was no help at the time. You name it, we did it. Garage sales, sponsored walks, bucket drives – even bag-wrapping in supermarkets.
Women’s rugby league has made incredible progress in recent years. The introduction of the Women’s Super League in 2017 sparked renewed interest but the pandemic put an end to that, with the competition canceled 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 where we sat wondering if all that momentum was going to be lost,” says Rudge. “We weren’t allowed to train, teams couldn’t get together and it has a huge impact on the development of the game. The fact that we could be up and running faster with this funding was amazing. I think we We would have lost so much momentum without it. It could have completely derailed us.
None of this would be possible without the historic tour of McIntosh, Dobek and the Lionesses. It was the first time a women’s team from Great Britain had toured overseas and, although the significance of the trip was overlooked at the time, those involved can now look back and understand a what a game-changing moment it was, not least because the Lionesses won the three-game streak against Australia 2-1.
“All of this was really unfamiliar to us,” McIntosh says. “We just wanted to play. Little did we really know that nobody had gone there and beaten Australia on their home turf. Australia and New Zealand have been playing against each other all the time and we just wanted to muscle up and really be part of it.
Dobek recalls: “We were only there for 12 days and played every other day, basically. We had no recovery time, few players due to funding and the accommodation was not exactly But it was the start of something and it has really become something special, not least thanks to funding from the National Lottery which allowed the girls to shine this year.
Rudge, who remembers the days before the WSL when crowds barely reached 100 people watched women’s rugby league, will not have to go to her local supermarket to pack her bags and raise money for the campaign. the World Cup in England. But before the first match, against Brazil in Leeds on November 1, she will remind her players of the sacrifices and the commitment made by those who preceded them to give them this chance.
“It’s so easy for young players to forget what those before us had to do,” she said. “They didn’t have the same opportunities or the funding that we have. I think some girls don’t know how lucky they are. It’s so important that the girls realize the difficult times previous players had just to put on a shirt. Now the girls are getting huge support to help them get to this point.
McIntosh, Dobek and co have already secured their place as pioneers of women’s sport. Now the opportunity looms for Rudge and his teammates to take a similar stance and potentially take the game to even greater heights with World Cup success.
“The idea of winning a World Cup on home soil is incredible,” Rudge said. “We would see a whole new generation of players in the years to come and there will only be more funding in the sport when there is success. So it will help to grow the sport even more and get more people to watch the sport. The potential is huge, it adds to the pressure, but that’s what we’re here for.