Heartbreak again for English rugby league in a World Cup but this time, heartbreak tinged with optimism and plenty of pride. While Shaun Wane’s men limped out in the semi-finals over the weekend and were undeniably disappointing, Craig Richards’ women leave at the same stage, but with their heads held high.
Make no mistake about it, England had set the goal of reaching the final on home soil this year. But the gulf in quality between the development of women’s rugby league on both sides of the world has been so vast, that the gap cannot be bridged overnight. Five years ago, England were beaten 52-4 by New Zealand in the semi-finals.
In front of a near-capacity crowd in York, the result may have been the same, but barely anything else was. This is a national team who have captivated the public, and you would hope that the Women’s Super League receives the benefits domestically next year. However, credit must go to the Kiwi Ferns for the way they set up a fourth straight final against Australia’s Jillaroos.
The hosts forged an early 6-0 lead and you wondered if England were capable of causing a shock. But as the night wore on, while New Zealand asserted their dominance and ran out winners, England held their own in the contest right until the final whistle, in stark contrast to 2017.
“I’ve seen the sacrifices they’ve made and I’m so proud of them,” Richards said, before breaking down in tears when revealing someone else will coach England next year. “We’ve got girls heading into the gym at 6am, they go to work, and go back for another session. What more can they do? Professionalism is the answer.”
The WSL has made great strides but all the players are amateur and were unpaid in 2022, in stark contrast with the NRLW, where a large majority of the players – including several of New Zealand’s stars here – are full-time professionals. Leeds Rhinos will help the women’s game make another big step next year by paying their players win bonuses.
It is a clear sign that the women’s game in this country is moving in the right direction, and England’s performance here, coupled with the way the public have roared behind the Lionesses for the past few weeks, is another. They were certainly loud when Georgia Roche’s pass sent Fran Goldthorp over to break the deadlock.
But New Zealand, led by their destructive duo of Amber Hall and Mele Hufanga, gradually assumed control of proceedings. They scored their first try when Hall’s break sent Hufanga over, before Raecene McGregor’s close-range finish made it 8-6 to the Kiwi Ferns at half-time. You felt that with the game in the balance, the first try after the break was vital.
Unfortunately for the hosts, it was New Zealand who scored it. Hufanga again left several England defenders sprawled on the floor before offloading and allowing the Kiwi Ferns to cross courtesy of Oseta Pule. Then, when Brianna Clark cut through to make it 20-6, you feared New Zealand would rack up a huge scoreline. But this England side, to their credit, dug in and battled until the very last tackle.
The result may have been heartbreakingly familiar but the scoreline and the 7,000-plus crowd that came to watch suggests there is a platform for women’s rugby league to build on. It won’t be England’s year this time, but maybe it could be in the near future. The onus is now on the powers that be to push towards the dream of making England’s women professional. They deserve it.