Peter Smith: Women’s Challenge Cup final to be played on the stage it deserves

Leeds Rhinos' Courtney Hill, left, and Castleford Tigers' Georgia Roche are pictured with the Women's Challenge Cup.
Leeds Rhinos' Courtney Hill, left, and Castleford Tigers' Georgia Roche are pictured with the Women's Challenge Cup.
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THE CORAL Women’s Challenge Cup final will be played on the stage it deserves this year.

READ: Brad Singleton’s verdict on Leeds Rhinos’ desperate situation

Leeds Rhinos players celebrate their victory over St Helens in the sem-final.

Leeds Rhinos players celebrate their victory over St Helens in the sem-final.

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Twelve months ago the Rugby Football League insisted on sticking with Warrington’s HJ Stadium as host for women’s finals day, despite four Yorkshire teams taking part.

That was a mistake and two excellent games – the Cup and Challenge Shield deciders – were played out in front of a combined crowd of just 1,022.

Considering Castleford Tigers, who lost to Leeds Rhinos in the 2018 showpiece and have an opportunity for revenge on Saturday, have been attracting bigger gates to home matches in Women’s Super League this year, it was a missed opportunity.

Castleford Tigers women celebrate their semi-final victory over Wakefield Trinity.

Castleford Tigers women celebrate their semi-final victory over Wakefield Trinity.

Both teams will cross the Pennines again for the 2019 decider in two days’ time, but this time there are no complaints and the RFL have got it right.

The final will be held at University of Bolton Stadium as the first part of a triple-header also featuring the two men’s Challenge Cup semi-finals.

Despite last year’s poor decision, the RFL have recognised a good thing when they see it and their efforts to promote the sport at girls’ and women’s level have to be applauded.

The introduction of a Woman of Steel award last year, won by Tigers’ 18-year-old Georgia Roche, was a welcome innovation and both the BBC and Sky have been using female pundits as part of their coverage this year.

The higher profile is working and there’s evidence fans will turn up to watch good rugby league, whatever the gender of the players on the field.

Tigers have been attracting four-figure gates this season, including 1,492 – a record for the women’s game – when they beat Bradford Bulls in a Challenge Cup quarter-final.

To put that into perspective, according to the BBC the average attendance for last season’s FA Women’s Super League – a fully professional competition -–was 833.

The two best-supported clubs were Chelsea and Manchester City, averaging 1,864 and 1,409 respectively.

Challenge Cup sponsors Coral are also backing the women’s competition and staging the final at Bolton, before the men’s games, will attract more attention and a bigger crowd than last year’s stand-alone event, which is what it deserves.

Some of the amateur stalwarts running long-established women’s sides are naturally upset at losing players to Super League clubs, but operating alongside the professional game is the way the female version of the sport will grow.

Rhinos’ women’s team played at Emerald Headingley in a curtain-raiser for the first time last week. While they were well below-par in a 30-16 loss to St Helens, it was a valuable experience and chance for a good-sized crowd to get a taste of what the women’s game is all about.

With Leeds resting a few players and neither side on top of their game it probably wasn’t the best advert, but – certainly at Super League level – women’s rugby league is played at a good intensity and there’s no shortage of talent or big hits.

Obviously there is a difference in physicality, but it is not touch and pass and players like Roche or Rhinos’ teenage full-back Caitlin Beevers have all the skills.

Having been run by the Rhinos’ foundation last year, the Leeds women’s team are now part of the club and have access to the same facilities and medical support as the men. They are amateur only in the fact they don’t get paid.

Though Tigers have been the outstanding team this year and are unbeaten at the top of Super League, they are a shade lucky to still be in the cup after fielding an ineligible player in their 100-0 semi-final win over Wakefield Trinity.

The RFL decided not to boot them out and that was the right decision.

Had Leeds faced Wakefield in the final it probably wouldn’t have been a contest or made for good viewing and it would have been a hollow victory for the eventual champions, but it is a lesson learned. Standards need to rise off the field to match those on it.

The ultimate aim must be to stage both Challenge Cup finals as a double-header at Wembley. If the women’s game continues to grow at its current rate that is surely inevitable at some stage in the not too distant future.