Women’s rugby league ready to return with World Cup in sights

While some rugby league players saw their campaigns thwarted by the Covid-19 pandemic, the elite of the Women’s game never even got going in 2020.

Ready for action: Castleford's Kelsey Gentles.

For Castleford Tigers star Kelsey Gentles, it has been a year of frustration.

Only the men’s top flight resumed on these shores this season as the Championship and League 1 competitions were cancelled.

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The Women’s Super League never kicked off, after the first round of fixtures were scheduled after a national lockdown was implemented in March.

Leeds-born Gentles was hoping to bring more silverware back to the Tigers after they lost the Challenge Cup final and Grand Final to Leeds Rhinos in 2019, after claiming the League Leaders’ Shield.

They also lost the 2018 Challenge Cup Final to rivals Leeds but with a Covid-19 vaccine currently being rolled out, there are hopes the 2021 Women’s Super League season will kick off next year. For Gentles and Castleford, there are firm ambitions of going one better in 2021, especially after being confined to the sidelines for so long.

“It has been frustrating, especially because we were kept in limbo for so long whether the season was going to start,” reflected Gentles.

“In the end, when we were told it wasn’t happening it was frustrating and disappointing.

“A lot of the girls thought this was going to be a very important year going into the World Cup next year.

“We wanted to really up our game but we haven’t been given the opportunity to do that.

“It has been hard not being able to train and not being in that team environment but it has given us a lot of time to reflect and focus on our priorities going into 2021.

“There are positives and negatives to take from the year.”

She continued: “It has been a running theme for two years, we have got so close but we haven’t been able to finish it off.

“A lot of the girls had that fire in their bellies, wanting to prove a point this year and win those things we haven’t been able to win. I hope the team still has that drive and determination to achieve the things in 2021 that we wanted to in 2020.”

Gentles has been sure to get the most out of a year that has not offered much.

The three-quarter, who scored 21 tries from 15 appearances in 2019 and made the shortlist for the Woman of Steel, had shoulder surgery in the summer to prepare for a return to play.

“I am really excited, it has been a long time coming. Hopefully, we are going back into pre-season next month,” she continued.

“We haven’t played a game for over a year, that is a long time to not play. The most time I have had off since I started playing is only about two weeks.

“I used this year not playing to get my body right.

“I had some shoulder surgery in August so that going into 2021 I am in the best shape possible.”

The 22-year-old only started playing rugby aged 16 but hopes the growth of the women’s game in recent years will encourage more girls to pick up rugby balls at a younger age.

She said: “My family are big rugby players. I was dying to play when I was younger but my mum and dad didn’t encourage it, they wanted me to play a different sport. They thought it was a bit too rough for girls. It wasn’t until I was 16 that I started playing.

“Once my mum saw that I loved it, she took me all over the country. It was relatively late compared to some of the other girls.

“Women’s rugby league is growing, it has come on leaps and bounds. We have just got to keep the ball rolling.”

The 2021 Rugby League World Cup is on the horizon and Gentles admits there is a little more pressure with England being the host nation. Gentles represented England at the Rugby League World Cup 9s last autumn and relished the experience of being in a full-time environment.

Women’s rugby league players on these shores are still largely semi-professional but Gentles hopes it will not always be that way.

She said: “Because the World Cup is at home, we feel a little bit more pressure to do ourselves justice. It is a lot to look forward to, 2021 is going to be a great year for Women’s Rugby League.

“The 9s World Cup was a totally different world to what we are used to in England.

“It was going up against professional athletes, it was a great experience playing in that tournament. It gave us a feel of what it could be like. I loved it and that is what we want, we want to be full-time professional athletes.”

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