Leeds Rhinos starlet Fran Goldthorp's 'special honour' as women's rugby league prepares to hit new heights
Fran Goldthorp is one of six Rhinos in Craig Richards' 19-player squad for the tournament opener against debutants Brazil.
The 19-year-old already boasts an impressive list of accomplishments – including two Super League Grand Final wins and a Challenge Cup winner's medal – but a World Cup appearance in her own backyard may just top the lot.
Once an awe-struck six-year-old cheering on superstars like Kevin Sinfield and Rob Burrow from the Headingley terraces, Goldthorp will be one of the modern day idols on show in front of an expected crowd of over 16,000.
"I remember going to games when I was very little and experiencing the whole atmosphere for which Headingley is renowned,” said Goldthorp, who still lives near the stadium.
“Having seen all those great players and now to get the chance to represent my country here is such a special honour."
A talented athlete, Goldthorp could have had her pick of sports after captaining Yorkshire’s cricket team at junior level and playing rugby union for Otley and West Park.
But the teenager, whose grandfather, father and brother have all played cricket for the White Rose, chose rugby league and has not looked back since bursting onto the scene at the age of 16.
Goldthorp memorably scored a double in the 2019 Grand Final win over Castleford Tigers and broke the club record for tries in a season with 20 in 12 games last year.
The Leeds-born starlet made her international debut in 2021 and has been a regular in the build-up to the home World Cup.
Goldthorp will play a crucial role alongside veterans such as Jodie Cunningham and captain Emily Rudge as England look to upset the odds and claim their first World Cup crown.
Belief will be important for Richards' part-time squad against southern hemisphere rivals Australia and New Zealand, both of whom boast players predominantly sourced from the fully professional NRL.
“I’ve never seen a more confident person in my life,” said the England boss.
“You don’t get many players that truly believe they are the best but Fran believes that and she produces on the field.
“There’s an air of confidence about her that even some of the more experienced players feed off. She keeps telling me there’s nothing she isn’t good at, and that’s the type of person you need in our squad.”
A packed house at Headingley is just the start for the Women's World Cup, which is set to reach more people than ever before.
The game has grown exponentially since the last tournament in 2017, the year the Women's Super League was founded with only four clubs: Bradford Bulls, Castleford, Featherstone Rovers and Thatto Heath Crusaders.
The Rhinos will create history in 2023 by becoming the first British club to make matchday payments to their women’s players.
Leeds already pay the players for promoting the game and contribute towards their travel expenses – but the club have expanded their women’s operation by pledging a winning bonus for each match, along with meritocratic payments for success in the Challenge Cup and Grand Final.
“It’s a great start and as Leeds Rhinos players we are massively privileged that we are able to experience that,” said Goldthorp.
“It will make a huge difference – not having to worry about other external things. We can just go out there and concentrate on rugby. We love the game but we do need that kind of backing if we want to continue producing the performances.”
England's first hurdle at the World Cup is a date with the Amazonas, a national team that was only formed in 2018.
Brazil have played just two international matches to date, a 48-0 win over Argentina three years ago and a warm-up loss to France last week.
The South American side have touched hearts with the story of their improbable journey to a first World Cup, as well as the samba rhythms and post-match dance session they treated supporters to at Featherstone.
But Richards, who has been in charge of England since the aftermath of their 2017 semi-final defeat to New Zealand, only has tunnel vision ahead of the first game of Group A, which also contains Canada and Papua New Guinea.
“Respectfully, it doesn’t interest me who they are,” he said. "It doesn’t interest me about the dancing and the razzmatazz.
“Everybody’s bought into them and there’s a lot of talk about them, but we’re here to win a World Cup.
"They’re just another team that are in the way and that’s how we’re going to approach it.”