Peter Smith: Women’s game has made some big strides this season

Charlotte Booth on the attack against Castleford.
Charlotte Booth on the attack against Castleford.
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CONSIDERING THE sport likes to be known as a family game, women’s rugby league has been a poor relation for far too long.

That is beginning to change with Women’s Super League now in its second season.

Danielle Anderson and Sophie Robinson.

Danielle Anderson and Sophie Robinson.

Last autumn’s women’s World Cup highlighted how far the female game here is behind Australia and New Zealand, but participation is increasing and the standard in the elite competition has improved significantly from last year.

The introduction of high-profile newcomers Leeds Rhinos and Wigan Warriors has given the game a major lift and it should be the ambition of every Super League club to run a women’s side.

There’s more to that than simply allowing the name to be used.

It means involving the women in the club and providing support and facilities which is something Rhinos have done this year.

Women’s sport is shamefully neglected in this country anyway and rugby league has lagged behind, but it is encouraging steps are finally being taken to catch up.

Peter Smith

Community clubs, such as Stanningley and Oulton, have done a tremendous job and Rhinos have benefited from that this year, but to really grow, the women’s game needed backing from Super League sides.

Now that is in place, the benefits are obvious.

Developing more players, of either gender, will improve standards and create more interest as well as a new generation of fans.

Rhinos forward Adam Cuthbertson is cutting his coaching teeth with the club’s women’s side and that is another long-term gain for the sport as a whole.

Adam Cuthbertson.

Adam Cuthbertson.

Rhinos’ women are treated very much as part of the club, using the same facilities as the men and having access to the medical teams, match previews and reviews and so on. That clearly is the way forward.

In their first season Rhinos are top of the Super League table – having lost only once so far – and will go into Saturday’s Challenge Cup final as favourites to win their first silverware.

Their opponents, Castleford Tigers, were Women’s Super League pioneers last year and are also doing a fine job in a hotbed of the game. They are fourth in the table, but beat Leeds in pre-season.

Crowds are still relatively small, but the women’s game is beginning to establish itself.

With clubs like Leeds running an under-19s academy there is now a pathway from the junior game to the elite level.

Women’s sport is shamefully neglected in this country anyway and rugby league has lagged behind, but it is encouraging steps are finally being taken to catch up.

Last season’s women’s Challenge Cup finals day was held at the Heworth community club in York.

To reflect the event’s growing prestige a bigger stage has been chosen this year, but the Rugby Football League have got it badly wrong.

Saturday’s showpiece will be the second part of a double-header which will begin with the Shield final between Championship side Stanningley and 2017 Challenge Cup winners and Super League champions Bradford Bulls.

So all four participating teams are from West Yorkshire, but the governing body has persisted with Warrington’s HJ Stadium as the venue and that is a baffling decision.

Rhinos and Tigers would both have been willing to host the event, on the toss of a coin.

They are Super League venues and – at most – a 30-minute drive from the competing clubs, who instead face a 90-minute slog over the M62.

Failing that, Featherstone, Batley, Dewsbury or Hunslet would all have been a suitable location and would have attracted a much bigger crowd than the one the games will get at Warrington.

HJ Stadium is a Super League facility, but it’s too big and hundreds of casual supporters who might have attended the game in Yorkshire won’t make the trek over the Pennines – particularly with two of the finalists coming from Leeds and Rhinos having a men’s Challenge Cup semi-final at Bolton the following afternoon.

It’s heartening to see the effort being put into the women’s game, but not switching finals day to Yorkshire makes no sense and will put a dampener on what should be a terrific occasion.