Women’s game is on the up but lack of competition needs to be addressed – Peter Smith

LEEDS RHINOS were due to begin their Betfred Women’s Super League campaign against Castleford Tigers this weekend, but that game won’t take place.

By Peter Smith
Thursday, 12th May 2022, 5:55 am

Instead, Rhinos kick-off at home to Huddersfield Giants a week tomorrow in a curtain-raiser to the men’s derby against Wakefield Trinity.

Tigers, who topped the league in 2019, have been granted a request to drop into the second tier of the competition.

That leaves Women’s Super League’s top tier with just five clubs: champions St Helens, Rhinos, York City Knights, Wigan Warriors and Huddersfield.

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Leeds Rhinos’ Keara Bennett and St Helens’ Eboni Partington at the launch of the Women’s Super League this week. Picture: Allan McKenzie/SWpix.com.

The Grand Final will take place at Saints’ TW Stadium on Sunday, September 18, two weeks after Headingley stages the top-four play-offs.

Sadly, it is possible – even before a ball has been kicked – to predict with a strong degree of certainty what the semi-final fixtures will be.

It’s highly likely Leeds will play York in the second-versus-third tie, with league leaders Saints taking on fourth-placed Wigan.

That could mean the title decider is a repeat of last Saturday’s Betfred Women’s Challenge Cup final at Elland Road.

Leeds Rhinos' Zoe Hornby celebrates her try against St Helens in the Challenge Cup final last weekend. Picture: Allan McKenzie/SWpix.com.

Saints won that one 18-8, but Leeds pushed them all the way and might have come out on top if they had taken their chances, particularly when they were well on top in the first half.

But Saints won every available honour last year and appear just as strong this time around so are definitely the team to beat.

York haven’t quite been able to defeat Leeds in a big game yet – either in their current guise or when several of their top players were with Castleford – but just two points separated the teams in a recent Cup semi-final and they’ll feel it will happen for them at some stage.

Rhinos, though, remain the next in line behind Saints and, on the evidence of last weekend, they are closing the gap, having lost 28-0 in last year’s Grand Final.

St Helens captain Jodie Cunningham and team-mates celebrate with the Betfred Women's Challenge Cup trophy. Picture: Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com.

Injuries hit Rhinos hard in 2021, but they’ve got some of those players back now and key additions – most notably stand-off Georgia Roche who was Woman of Steel four years ago when she was with Castleford – have strengthened the side.

Rhinos can get better and will fancy their chances of upsetting Saints, if they get all the way to the title decider.

The fact Sky have decided to provide live coverage of Leeds’ league game at Saints next month, a curtain-raiser to a meeting between the clubs’ men’s sides, tells its own story.

Women’s rugby league is on the up and beginning to attract an audience, but it’s not all rosy.

Lack of competition is an issue the sport must address going forward.

There is a World Cup looming in five months’ time, but the majority of England’s squad will go into that having had only three or four truly competitive matches all season.

New Zealand and Australia are a long way ahead and that gap is not going to close until there are more meaningful fixtures in the domestic competition.

The women’s game – once kept afloat by dedicated individuals at community clubs – has made good progress, but there’s still much hard work to be done.

More women’s sides are being formed and occasions like last week’s Cup final, increased televised fixtures and games being played as curtain-raiders, or lowerers, to men’s matches are a definite step in the right direction.

But the best players are concentrated at two or three clubs and some big opportunities to advance the sport, most notably when Castleford were top of the tree in 2019, have been missed. Gates for their games that season proved fans will turn up to watch a talented women’s team who play good rugby, but the club didn’t make the most of that and the side broke up.

Liam Rush refereed last week’s Cup final, but there are female referees coming through the ranks and it would be good to see a woman in charge of the biggest games at some stage.

That’s also some way off, one of the issues being the fact the two top female officials, Caitlin Beevers and Tara Jones, also play – for Rhinos and Saints respectively.