The Coral Challenge Cup Final is not the only significant Rugby League action taking place this weekend.
A few hours before the kick off at Wembley and a couple of hundred miles north at Weetwood in Leeds, the England Women Performance Squad will engage in their most physical and significant session since lockdown, as they continue a determined attempt to make up for the time lost from an abandoned Betfred Women’s Super League season – with the clock ticking down towards next year’s home World Cup.
The spring and summer had been a deeply frustrating period for all, although the players were given individual training programmes through Lockdown, and head coach Craig Richards held regular virtual meetings.
After finally being given the go-ahead to get back on to the field in September, England’s elite women have worked through a six-week staged Return to Playing programme.
The 30 players were split between the North West and Yorkshire, with coaching staff at all sessions following guidelines drawn up by the England Performance Unit and Dr Gemma Phillips, the RFL’s Covid lead.
Initial sessions involved small pods of players working on skills in comparative isolation; but the last two weeks have seen full contact in larger groups.
This week’s session will be another step up – a first chance for more than seven months to train as one Performance Squad, culminating in an opposed training match between the North West and Yorkshire groups.
Emily Rudge, the England captain, said: “After waiting for so long, it’s been brilliant for all of the girls to get back out on the field together over the last few weeks.
“We’ve had to do everything in the right way, by taking on board a lot of Covid advice and following the policies set out for us as a team.
“This weekend’s training match will be another step forward in the programme – and we’ve already been given a detailed plan for the next few months, leading up to an Origin series in March before we can get back playing for our Super League clubs.
“It’s amazing to think that this time next year, we’ll be on the brink of the World Cup. It hasn’t been the year we’d hoped for in terms of Women’s Rugby League, but the World Cup is still firmly within our sights. We’ve turned the focus to making gains with our strength, speed and power and it’s been really nice to have the time to build on that lately – the girls are starting to see some really positive outcomes.
“We always knew 2021 was going to be our biggest challenge yet, and that’s even more the case after what’s happened in 2020. But we’re all up for that challenge and can’t wait for next year.”
The England Women Performance Squad programme for 2021 will begin on November 28, with weekly sessions either side of Christmas leading up to a three-match Origin series in March.
The RFL has committed to Government and Sport England that it will do all it can to maintain momentum in Women’s Rugby League which had been growing at 30 per cent year on year pre-lockdown, and enjoying its highest ever profile. RLWC2021 offers a uniquely powerful platform to inspire more women and girls to play, watch, officiate, coach and volunteer.