Two years ago, a girls’ rugby league squad from Yorkshire became the first to tour Australia. Now Sarah Freeman finds out how their stories have inspired a play set to be the new Up ’n’ Under.
When the Batley Bulldogs girls squad boarded a flight to Australia in the winter of 2015 few of the other passengers knew they were witnessing a little slice of sporting history. Dressed in matching tracksuits, the West Yorkshire teenagers were about to become the first ever girls’ rugby league team to tour Down Under, but the three-week trip would also see some more personal firsts.
“For a lot of the girls it was their first time abroad, but one or two had never even been on a plane before,” says coach Craig Taylor. “I knew that going out to Australia would be good for their rugby, but it was more than that. It was about showing them a different country, a different culture and saying look at everything there is out there.”
The schedule was gruelling. For the first two weeks the girls played a game every three days and, while they had arrived in Queensland on the back of an impressive two-year unbeaten run, the Aussies proved tough opposition. In their first game, their winning streak came to an abrupt end when they lost 48-0. The defeat could only have been described as crushing, but Taylor says they learnt more from that loss than they did from all the previous wins.
“Our girls had been training three times a week, they had put the work in, but the sport in Australia is about five years ahead of where we are and we came up short. But they didn’t sulk and they didn’t let their heads drop. It made them raise their game.”
The tour didn’t get any easier. Subsequent matches were played in 30C heat and amid the searing temperatures players collapsed and tears were shed. However, against the odds the Batley Bulldogs beat the runners-up in the Queensland State Championships and narrowly lost to Merrimac who had lifted that year’s title.
Speaking after the match, NRL women and girls head development officer for Queensland Keeown Rawlsey said: “That was the best game of youth footy I have seen in two years. Those Pommy girls of yours have hearts as big as pumpkins. They would go really well in our club competition out here.”
Given the ingredients of Yorkshire grit, triumph against adversity and a helping of real life drama, it’s perhaps unsurprising then when playwright Kevin Fegan was commissioned to write a play about the Batley Bulldogs he chose not to focus on the men’s professional side, but on the group of teenage girls who travelled from the Golden Mile to the Gold Coast.
“I’d been given a year-long residency at the club, with the view that I would write a play, but it was on the understanding that I could have the freedom to choose what I wrote about. Even before Australia happened it was obvious to me that the drama lay within the under-16s – to me, they seemed like the club’s best kept secret. Sometimes as a writer you get lucky and when they were invited to tour Australia, it was the final piece of jigsaw.”
Fegan was among the 47-strong party from Batley who headed to Queensland and the blog he kept of the trip proved useful when he finally sat down to write the play, which opens at the Lawrence Batley Theatre in Huddersfield later this month.
“I will never forget when we arrived in Australia. The landscape of the Gold Coast couldn’t have been more different to Batley, but it quickly became clear that while they might be separated by thousands of miles they actually had a lot in common. It was an area which had welcomed a large influx of foreign workers, but whose traditional industries had then collapsed and there were numerous parallels between there and West Yorkshire. For the girls they saw their lives reflected in these communities and they found kindred spirits.”
The Ruck is a work of fiction, but having worked closely with the club, Fegan knows that some of the players will see elements of their own stories in the piece.
“Of course when you are basing a play on real life people you have to be sensitive, but this isn’t a documentary, it’s drama. While I was there to be an observer, I also wanted them to know that nothing they said would be used verbatim. It was important that I earn their trust.
“To explore all the themes I wanted to I decided to introduce an Asian player. There are no Asian girls playing rugby at Batley Bulldogs, but I know there will be one day and it just meant that I can introduce the idea of how sport helps us integrate. On that field of play, once the whistle is blown race, colour, creed and religion cease to matter.”
It’s not the first time rugby league has spawned a hit play. John Godber’s Up ’n’ Under about an inept pub team whose fortunes are transformed by the help of a coach, who just so happens to be a woman.
“You don’t write as a vacuum and every playwright is influenced by what has gone before. One of the characters in The Ruck is called Hazel, which is the same name as the coach in Up ‘n’ Under. That was my way of doffing my cap and giving a little nod to Godber.”
Like those girls of 2015, the play will go on its own mini-tour and for Taylor, who has rugby in his blood, he hopes it will in its own small way help raise the profile of the sport.
“I set the under-16s girls side up at Batley because there wasn’t one. I was coaching a mixed team of youngsters, which included by own daughter and niece, but once they reached the age of 12 there was nowhere for them to go.
“That was in 2012 and now quite a few other girls squads have sprung up, but there isn’t really any funding. To get to Australia we held raffles, organised bucket collections and spent weekends packing people’s shopping at local supermarkets. Of course it was worth it, but it would be nice to see the RFL giving the girls’ game some financial support at its grassroots, because really that’s the only way you will get it to grow.
“I do look on a little enviously at how much coverage other women’s sports get. ITV broadcast the recent Women’s Rugby Union World Cup but when the England Lionesses head to Australia later this year for the Rugby League World Cup I doubt the games will make it onto any mainstream channel.”
Maybe not, but the tale of how the girls of the Batley Bulldogs took on the Aussies will at least get its moment in the sun.
The Ruck, Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield, September 15&16, 01484 430528, thelbt.org; Theatre Royal Wakefield, September 18&19, Cast, Doncaster, September 20& 21; The Civic, Barnsley, September 22.