Women's Super League clubs going at own pace at start of exciting new era

As the stars of the Women's Super League buzzed around the LNER Community Stadium on Tuesday, the excitement was palpable.

The profile of the sport is growing exponentially, as evidenced by the media interest in household names such as York Valkyrie captain and reigning Woman of Steel Sinead Peach.

All things considered, York's modern stadium was the perfect setting for the 2024 season launch.

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From staging eight games during the 2022 World Cup to last year's Grand Final attended by a record crowd, the LNER Community Stadium has almost become the unofficial home of women's rugby league in this country.

The Valkyrie lifted the Super League trophy for the first time after seeing off Leeds Rhinos in the decider and are setting the pace at the start of the professional era.

Together with the Rhinos, York broke new ground by paying their players from the 2023 season and have since gone a step further.

In the aftermath of their title triumph, the Valkyrie became the first Super League team to reward their players with professional contracts, which are made up of base salaries, a range of performance-related bonuses and also include maternity leave support and NRLW player options.

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It was a groundbreaking move, one that could benefit the club as much as the players after taking a weight off the shoulders of the women in Lindsay Anfield's squad.

The Women's Super League continues to grow in popularity. (Photo: Allan McKenzie/SWpix.com)The Women's Super League continues to grow in popularity. (Photo: Allan McKenzie/SWpix.com)
The Women's Super League continues to grow in popularity. (Photo: Allan McKenzie/SWpix.com)

"It was about rewarding the players as people," director of rugby Anfield told The Yorkshire Post.

"Now they don't have to worry about whether we win or lose games or trophies; they are going to be looked after by the club and can rely on that every month.

"Clubs are now paying match payments which were unheard of two or three years ago. It's fantastic, don't get me wrong, but equally if a player gets injured or pregnant, they get nothing at all – and they're probably going to have to do more work to get back up to playing level.

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"That was really, really important for us, and for the girls to understand that we do value them as people by rewarding them accordingly."

York hosted the Women's Super League launch earlier this week. (Photo: Allan McKenzie/SWpix.com)York hosted the Women's Super League launch earlier this week. (Photo: Allan McKenzie/SWpix.com)
York hosted the Women's Super League launch earlier this week. (Photo: Allan McKenzie/SWpix.com)

York found that offering win bonuses had an adverse effect on the players.

"At the time when we started match payments, I didn't realise the way it would go in terms of players being so desperate to be on the field that they wouldn't tell you about injuries," added Anfield.

"There were other things going on that they were so desperate to get the money, whereas now they don't have to worry so much about that.

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"It's more about the culture and environment of being a professional."

York's Sinead Peach and Leeds' Shona Hoyle are two of the stars of the Women's Super League. (Photo: Allan McKenzie/SWpix.com)York's Sinead Peach and Leeds' Shona Hoyle are two of the stars of the Women's Super League. (Photo: Allan McKenzie/SWpix.com)
York's Sinead Peach and Leeds' Shona Hoyle are two of the stars of the Women's Super League. (Photo: Allan McKenzie/SWpix.com)

Sat alongside team-mates Tara Jane Stanley and Liv Wood on the day the Valkyrie made history, Peach's beaming smile was worth a thousand words.

The hooker has been on the Super League journey every step of the way, starting out at Featherstone Rovers before following Anfield from Castleford to York.

Even after leading the Valkyrie to a league double and winning the sport's most prestigious individual prize, there was a sense of disbelief when she became one of the first female players to be offered professional terms.

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"When I was a young girl, I never would have thought in my wildest dreams that I would be sat down with the chairman (Clint Goodchild) signing a contract," said the 25-year-old.

"You see so many of the lads signing those pieces of paper so to get your own photo as a reward for doing something that you love was a surreal moment.

"To have every member of our squad receive one of those contracts is amazing for the club.

York celebrate their Grand Final triumph. (Photo: Ed Sykes/SWpix.com)York celebrate their Grand Final triumph. (Photo: Ed Sykes/SWpix.com)
York celebrate their Grand Final triumph. (Photo: Ed Sykes/SWpix.com)

"Us girls have a strong mentality and that mentality hasn't changed, it's just probably given us a bit of extra motivation.

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"Lindsay, the coaching staff and Clint have always instilled that in us so it's not going to change much – but we are very humble to have these contracts. If anything, it's just made us a bit hungrier to prove ourselves."

Although the players have remained part-time, it represents another major breakthrough for the women’s game.

Leeds provided win bonuses in 2023, along with meritocratic payments for success in Super League and the Challenge Cup.

The Rhinos are waiting until the women's operation is ready before offering professional contracts, an approach that suits new signing Shona Hoyle.

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"I'm quite happy where we are," said Hoyle. "Leeds offer funds as well. It's nice but does it change my thought process? Absolutely not.

"We've been going years without payments and have still given exactly the same.

"We still want to perform as athletes and look after ourselves with the right nutrition and strength and conditioning. They look after us so much at Leeds. I really appreciate what they do for us."

Leeds and York are part of a big three in the Women's Super League that is completed by St Helens, who are providing match payments from this season.

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Wigan Warriors have invested a significant sum of money in their women's operation, including the appointment of Denis Betts as head coach, while Huddersfield Giants turned professional in the off-season after moving under the club's control.

The Giants had a solitary Super League win to show for their efforts in the previous two seasons but long-serving captain Bethan Oates – one of the first players to sign a professional contract at the club alongside Amelia Brown – can see the bigger picture.

"I was quite shocked, to be honest," said Oates.

"I'm the only one left from the start so it's kind of a thank you to me from the club.

"I didn't expect any teams to do this yet; I did think players getting contracts was a bit away. That professionalism and dedication are things I've been doing for the past three seasons in Super League and now I'm just getting that money for it.

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"It's very easy for any player to leave a club and go to somewhere bigger or better but I've started here and want to finish here. It's the dedication, it's the passion and the legacy you leave as a player by being at a club for so long.

"I've been the captain for four or five seasons now. It brings me so much pride and happiness that one day somebody else is going to be me and I'll be able to say I set that platform at Huddersfield."

Once clubs negotiate the group stage of the Challenge Cup, the Giants will help kick off the 2024 Women's Super League season against Leeds next month in the first part of a Headingley double-header.

But whereas the men will have a sole focus that week, the female stars of Super League must continue to work either side of game day.

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In rewarding his York players with professional contracts, Goodchild predicted that there would be full-time women's players in the next five to 10 years.

Peach is happy to blaze a trail for others, whether she benefits or not.

"For a young girl now looking at what's to come and how the sport is growing, they can 100 per cent do that," she added.

"We spoke to one of the girls in our youth programme at our shirt launch and she was saying that what we're doing is motivating her and how thankful she was to us as role models.

"It was a pinch-me moment to think that's how we're making young girls feel and what they could achieve in the sport by possibly getting full-time contracts when they're older."

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