York City Knights target Challenge Cup glory to cap incredible turnaround

TWO YEARS ago, the last time a full women’s rugby league season was completed before coronavirus struck, York City Knights finished second from bottom in Super League, winning only one of their 13 matches, scoring 68 points and conceding 522.

GOING FOR GLORY: York City Knights' Adam Cuthbertson and Lindsay Anfield have helped the club reach the Women's Challenge Cup final. Picture: Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com.

When the competition resumed in April, York kicked off with a 68-16 defeat by 2019 double-winners Leeds Rhinos and it seemed the North Yorkshire outfit would, again, do little more than make up the numbers this year.

But then, everything changed.

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In March, Lindsay Anfield, a near-legendary figure in the women’s game, stepped down from her role as coach at Castleford Tigers Ladies, who she had guided to back-to-back Challenge Cup finals, top spot in the 2019 Super League table and a Grand Final appearance.

READY FOR BATTLE: St Helens' Amy Hardcastle and York City Knights' Kelsey Gentles pictured with the Betfred Women's Challenge Cup trophy. Picture: Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com.

The following month, Anfield was unveiled as York’s new director of women’s rugby. Her assistant at Castleford, Callum Windley, made a similar move and the club also confirmed Adam Cuthbertson as head of performance, uniting the two coaches who had been in opposite camps for successive Challenge Cup finals and the Super League title decider two years ago.

Two weeks into the season, York began strengthening their on-field squad, bringing in seven new faces, five of them England internationals from Castleford.

The transformation was immediate, as York’s new-look side began by stunning Wigan Warriors in a Challenge Cup quarter-final and then, two weeks later, beat Tigers 32-4 in the last-four to reach today’s final at Leigh Sports Village, where they will face this year’s only unbeaten team, St Helens.

A two-point setback in a rematch with Castleford last week was the Knights’ only defeat since the new players came into the side.

Having overcome fellow big guns Leeds at the semi-final stage, Saints will be hot favourites to win the showpiece, which is being televised live on BBC Two.

However, while Anfield admits just being in the final is a “huge achievement for the club and the girls in particular”, she also feels York have the skill, belief and team spirit to create what would be a major upset.

“We are really relishing the opportunity,” she said.

“We were underdogs against Wigan and Cas so that’s a tag that suits us and takes the pressure right off what we are doing.

“It is fine, we are happy with that and we do feel that on the day it is anyone’s game.

“We are confident in what we are doing.”

Anfield is an assistant to England head coach Craig Richards, adding spice to today’s occasion, he is also in charge of Saints.

Today’s television coverage is a groundbreaking opportunity for the women’s game and, as a club, Anfield believes York can only benefit from unprecedented exposure.

“The profile of Women’s Super League in general has grown over the last few years and this is another huge milestone, for the game, not just for York,” she observed.

“For us to feature in it is massive. When I started there and Cuthbo and the girls came [from Castleford and Bradford] we had big ambitions to play in the biggest games, on the biggest stages.

“We didn’t expect it to come so soon but we are absolutely delighted.”

Until this year, York were in the bottom half of what was effectively a two-tier sport, with Leeds, Castleford, St Helens and Wigan all a clear distance ahead of the rest.

York’s emergence as a genuine force has evened out the women’s code at the top level and Anfield said: “That’s what was needed, nobody likes to see predictable games or games that are completely one-sided.

“To add another team into the mix is definitely what’s required and hopefully other clubs will put their heads above the parapet and realise it is do-able if they approach the women’s game with the right kind of attitude and place value on having a women’s team at the club. If you do that, anything is possible.”

Critics may point an accusing finger at York for taking players from other clubs during the season, but Anfield insists the building blocks were in place even before they arrived.

“They have just strengthened the depth of the squad,” she said. “Before any of us came, it was a really tight-knit and good squad, but really small.

“This has just added that bit of depth and experience and some big personalities. People are looking and saying ‘why would these players want to move?’ and hopefully it is evident now that the provision York are offering is fantastic and girls will want to play there.”

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