Peter Smith: If you look closely enough, good things are happening in rugby league

Courtney Hill.
Courtney Hill.
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IT’S A bit like pointing out that other than the business with Abraham Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth the play went rather well, but apart from the senior side, Leeds Rhinos actually didn’t have a bad year!

Rhinos received the prize for foundation of the year at the recent Man of Steel awards, having been one of the pioneers of physical disabilities rugby league, made a big success of their new women’s team and seen their wheelchair side win the national competition.

Rhinos won the women’s Challenge Cup, topped Super League and played their full part in a thrilling Grand Final which Wigan Warriors won 18-16 thanks to a penalty goal deep into stoppage time.

Leeds’ academy, in Rob Burrow’s debut season as coach, finished third in the under-19s table and also reached the Grand Final only to be beaten by Wigan.

After two defeats in Grand Finals, Rhinos made it third time lucky by defeating Halifax in the wheelchair title decider.

So Rhinos are getting some things right. Obviously it is the senior team who matter most and judgement will have to be reserved on that until they get a few games under their belt next year.

Caitlin Beevers.

Caitlin Beevers.

However, while nobody is getting carried away, there are some positive noises coming out of Emerald Headingley. The proof will be in the quality of players brought in, but indications are positive changes are being made.

It has also been a difficult season for the sport in this country at a professional level, but fringe areas of the game are showing encouraging signs of growth.

It was a shame Rhinos’ could not complete the treble last weekend, but – along with Wigan – Leeds are leading the way in promoting women’s rugby league. The sport prides itself on its family image and a significant proportion of fans are female, but the women’s version has not captured public imagination, despite the efforts of volunteers at grassroots level and last year’s World Cup showed how far behind the southern hemisphere to game here is.

Community clubs like Oulton and Stanningley have done a superb job encouraging girls and young women to play rugby league and it is not surprising they have had their noses put out by Super League and what is perceived as big clubs muscling in.

If the sport has the imagination to make more of feel-good stories like this it could potentially open up a whole new market of players, as well as fans.

Peter Smith

New teams like Rhinos had to get their players from somewhere and sides and competitions at a lower level have been weakened, but if women’s rugby league is going to take off it will be on the back of the big, fully professional clubs.

Rhinos and Wigan have the resources to make it work and their involvement has taken the women’s game to a new level. It is an opportunity the sport needs to grasp. There may be a perception women’s rugby league is an inferior version of the game, but it really isn’t.

Skill levels, certainly among the leading clubs, are high and though the players aren’t paid, teams like Rhinos are run on a professional basis.

The potential of the women’s game is highlighted by the fact the first Woman of Steel, Castleford Tigers’ 18-year-old loose-forward Georgia Roche, has been shortlisted for the BBC young sports personality of the year award.

Woman of Steel Georgia Roche.

Woman of Steel Georgia Roche.

The women’s game is full of interesting characters, such as Leeds full-back Caitlin Beevers, who not only played in Leeds’ Challenge Cup-winning team this year, but was also the first female to referee at Wembley in the curtain-raiser to the men’s version.

Or Courtney Hill, a top cricketer in Australia she moved to England this year and had never played open-age rugby league before joining Rhinos.

St Helens captain Tara Jones became Super League’s first female on-field official when she took in-goal touch judge duties for Wakefield Trinity’s fixture at Wigan Warriors in March.

If the sport has the imagination to make more of feel-good stories like this it could potentially open up a whole new market of players, as well as fans.

Similarly, physical disabilities rugby league may be on the point of really taking off. That version is still developing and work needs to be done on standardising the rules before a league can begin, but it is another opportunity to expand to new areas.

Good things are happening, if you look closely enough.