The women’s game is a growth area for rugby league, at a time when there are real fears about the direction being taken by the sport as a whole, and live network coverage of Saturday’s final, on BBC 2, was another significant step forward.
Realistically, the showpiece was never likely to be a contest, the two top sides, Saints and Leeds, having met at the semi-final stage. But though York were outclassed, they gave a better account of themselves than the 34-6 scoreline suggests and television viewers will surely have been impressed by the standard of rugby on show.
The final was played at Leigh as the first part of a triple-header also involving the two men’s semi-finals, after previous deciders at Warrington and Bolton, but pressure is building for it to be transferred to Wembley in future years.
That would be the ultimate accolade and Saturday’s player of the match, St Helens second-row forward Emily Rudge, believes it is a natural part of the game’s evolution.
“It would be nice to hopefully one day get a game at Wembley,” said Rudge after Saints’ first major trophy success.
“The game is going that way, progress is in the right direction and we are doing things now that have never happened before for the women’s game. It is one step at a time, but maybe that is the next step.”
Women’s rugby league will receive more exposure during this autumn’s World Cup, when six group matches and both semi-finals are staged at York’s new community stadium.
Despite recent advances, England remain some distance behind international powerhouses Australia and New Zealand, but the key to closing the gap is increasing the player-base and making the elite league more competitive.
York’s emergence as a new force is doing both. Also-rans in previous years, Knights recruited their director of women’s rugby Lindsay Anfield, coach Callum Windley and five England players from Castleford’s 2019 squad, who topped Super League and saw off both Wigan and Tigers en-route to the final.
“Our chairman, Jon Flatman, is 100 per cent behind the team,” said Windley after the final defeat. “He knows it is going places and he is going to fully support that.
“York is a sleeping giant and by hosting World Cup games we can get extra fans in and attract future players.”
Knights made a good start to the final and looked the more confident team, until Saints scored the first of their seven tries after 14 minutes. From then on, Saints were far more clinical and defended their line strongly when put under pressure.
York were held up over the line a couple of times, but their try came seven minutes after the break when Sinead Peach touched down from her own kick and Rhiannion Marshall added the extras.
Danielle Bush, Rachael Woosey, Rudge and Amy Hardcastle had earlier crossed to give Saints a 20-0 interval lead and Woosey, Carrie Roberts and Paige Travis scored in the second half. Bethany Stott kicked three conversion.
Despite the result, Windley described reaching the final as a “great achievement” and predicted it could be the start of big things for the club.
“It’s good for the city and also for the next generation, the young girls watching on TV,” he said.
“It was a great advert for rugby league. Full credit to Saints, they played very well, but we kept having a dig and turning up for each other; they are hungry and willing to learn and gett better and that can only work to our advantage.”
York City Knights: Hardy, Gentles, Renouf, Andrade, Lambert, Marshall, Langan, Field, Peach, Clayton, Wood, Sanderson, Hendry. Substitutes: Innes, Farrow, Hyde, Stimpson.
St Helens: Rotherham, Woosey, Roberts, Hardcastle, Bush, Stott, Gaskin, Akrigg, Jones, Crowl, Travis, Rudge, Cunningham. Substitutes: Rudge, Birchall, Burke, Williams.
Referee: M Griffiths (Widnes).