Leeds Rhinos Women player and British Army soldier sees ‘massive improvement’ in women’s sports over the last year

A soldier and Leeds Rhinos player has spoken out about how much women's sport has changed over the years on International Women's Day.

Elychia Watson, who started her rugby league career in the British Army before joining Leeds Rhinos, said: “I could see a massive improvement going from just an amateur side, girls just playing at the weekend and nothing serious to a super league professional team, getting everything that we need. It’s just leading us in the right direction towards women becoming professional athletes.

“Even over the last year, women's rugby is evolving massively. I’ve got role models from when I was younger. I’ve always looked up to Jessica Ennis-Hill and Kelly Holmes, they were always my inspiration growing up. I always had an inclining that I would get into athletics. I think we have improved massively.”

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A year after she was invited to join the army rugby league team, Ms Watson tore her ACL and ended up in surgery, taking three to four years off from playing in the army league team.

Elychia Watson playing for the Leeds Rhinos Women team. (Pic credit: Elychia Watson)Elychia Watson playing for the Leeds Rhinos Women team. (Pic credit: Elychia Watson)
Elychia Watson playing for the Leeds Rhinos Women team. (Pic credit: Elychia Watson)

Once she got back into it, she found that the game had changed drastically and her passion for the sport returned in full form.

The 25-year-old, of Armley, said: “Open the doors to young women, change their mindset as they grow up; you might have a household that does sport, you might have a household that doesn’t do sport.

“Just letting young girls know that if they have a talent for it or even if they don’t, if they are willing to work hard then the opportunity will come around; it’s just about finding the right path.

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“When I was younger in school, the boys would be like ‘the girls can’t do that’. But just stick with it. Find a friend or a training partner you can go training with every day. I think if you want to be one of the fittest then it’s just about keeping that consistency and just believing that you can do it.

Elychia working in the army. (Pic credit: Elychia Watson)Elychia working in the army. (Pic credit: Elychia Watson)
Elychia working in the army. (Pic credit: Elychia Watson)

“You don’t have to be talented, but as long as you’ve got the work [ethic] to get where you want to be then you’ll succeed just as much as a talented person.

“There were talks about Leeds Rhinos Women team coming out [when I first started] and I’ve always wanted to play for my city, it’s mental. I’ve got a picture of me playing for the Army and a picture of me playing for the Rhinos now - just three years difference.”

Ms Watson admits that when it comes to sports, her goal is to be at the top and she has to work harder than the average player to get there, but that this mindset has made her stronger as a person.

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She talked about her role models growing up and why they inspired her in life and in her career.

Elychia with her Leeds Rhinos teammates. (Pic credit: Elychia Watson)Elychia with her Leeds Rhinos teammates. (Pic credit: Elychia Watson)
Elychia with her Leeds Rhinos teammates. (Pic credit: Elychia Watson)

“Kelly Holmes and I have probably had a similar background in terms of her joining the army, she became a PTI, she’s had a military background and she’s come from a similar family background,” she said.

“She had a talent, whereas for me, I knew if I wanted to get there I’d have to work hard, harder than the average person with talent and she really resonated with me, she’s done really well. Her parents have instilled that talent in her and she’s become an amazing person overall.

“[Jessica Ennis-Hill] is from Sheffield and she’s an Olympic champion and I think if I can remember she suffered a big injury.

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“Coming back from that and then becoming a champion just shows her resilience and I understand how that feels. Her journey resonates with me. It’s nice to see that even with setbacks, you can come back and come back stronger and fitter.”

Throughout her career in the army, she was deployed all over the world on overseas tours and since playing for the army, Ms Watson has represented the Jamaican Rugby Union and is currently playing for Leeds Rhinos Women, which has been her dream come true.

She tore her ACL for the second time in June 2022 and is currently in the process of recovering from surgery. She is planning on returning to her position at Leeds Rhinos in September this year.

Ms Watson still works in the army as a combat HR specialist and is due to return to the army in about a year’s time. Meanwhile, the Jamaica Rugby 7s are currently preparing for the 2024 Olympics - so watch this space.

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