Famine to feast: After a year of no matches, England’s coach and players can’t wait for next year’s Rugby League World Cup
Rugby league players are used to taking hard hits. And the Covid pandemic has certainly hit the sport hard, particularly the women's game which hasn't seen league matches played since the tail end of last year.
But without having had a game since November 2019, England insist they will not be taking ‘excuses’ into next year’s World Cup, which they are hosting.
Head coach Craig Richards exclusively told NewsChain: "[The WSL and Challenge Cup being cancelled has] definitely impacted players.
“I think the ones that it's challenged the most were the new girls that have been brought in at the start of the year into the national programme. They didn't have a chance to play to evidence where they're at.”
The only action the women have seen on the pitch this year was in the Origin Series in March, which saw regional teams of Lancashire and Yorkshire play three games in total with the former taking the win.
Despite the huge obstacles in their way, as England return to training after the second lockdown, Richards has made it clear his team have no excuses not to be successful in the global tournament.
"It's definitely had an impact on the players but I'll be honest, from my point of view and the feedback to the girls in conversations, we've had in terms of the World Cup is that we won't use that as an excuse. There's no doubt missing a full season of Super League, missing the Challenge Cup competition has made us, I suppose, re-adjust our plans. What we wanted for 2020 has been impacted but I'm always one that tries to look at the positives.
“I suppose the positives of not playing this season is we're not carrying any injuries and girls that were carrying injuries have had time to recover. Even though we haven't been able to get in the gym much, they've still been able to go out training so fitness levels have been able to be maintained. Long term injuries you tend to carry, some of the girls have managed to manage them better and get over them.”
Richards’ England face Brazil, Canada and Papua New Guinea in their pool in November next year and those countries have also had league and international disruptions to their 2020.
The coach says as a result the pool are on a level playing field.
"I think it's tough really because you can sit back and look at it yourself and think you've been disadvantaged but I think just about everyone has been disadvantaged by the pandemic. I know Brazil have struggled, Canada have struggled to get games, France have struggled.
"I suppose the big two in New Zealand and Australia have had less interruptions with the pandemic. But then again you look at the NRLW (NZ and Aussie league), a lot of their key players have picked up little injuries, nothing severe that would impede the World Cup.
“So I don't think we have lost a great deal, it's not been the best preparation but at the end of the day we have 12 months to put it right from here onwards.”
He also said it doesn’t matter if England face New Zealand, Australia or any other team in the semi-final - his squad will be ready.
"I suppose for me it takes away an excuse that the countries that are in our pool are in the exact same boat as us. Our goal is to get through that pool unbeaten and no matter what at the end of those three games there's no excuses.
“You’ve hopefully had a good season behind you then I think there's no excuses. Whoever you get in that semi-final game it's just the best team on the day and I'm just hoping and praying that it's England. I’m confident that we will be ready and we'll be good enough.”
Part of making sure they are ‘good enough’ will be the players Richards and his coaching staff choose.
They will cut the squad down from 38 players to 23 and among the hopefuls wanting to be in the team is Castleford Tigers star Lacey Owen.
The 20 year-old was called up into the squad for the first time this year and she tweeted at the time of the announcement that it was a ‘dream come true’. Her first cap could be earned at the World Cup in the pool stage, so how is she feeling about those matches?
"I don't think there's any easy way into the competition. But I think everyone is in the same mindset of staying well prepared because you don't know how any of those teams will play just as well they don’t know how we're going to perform.
“I can guarantee a lot of us have been working hard towards this World Cup.”
Apart from England training and the Origin Series, Owen hasn’t picked up a rugby ball since 2019 and shessays the absence of the WSL and the Challenge Cup has had a big impact on her.
"I don't know how to put it into words. Obviously we all had high expectations of what 2020 could bring, all the teams were getting much better, much stronger season on season and I think for us not to be performing as we were in 2019 it let quite a lot of us down.
“I think a lot of us were expecting it because the men's competition was [suspended] but a lot of us need to play rugby. We love to do it but a lot of us really thrive off of that season and seeing each other every Sunday. I think a lot of the girls have missed that this year, including myself.”
Another reason she has missed rugby is that it’s her outlet to let off steam. Women’s rugby league in England isn’t professional, meaning players work full-time alongside their rugby commitments.
Owen works at UK Safety Management, a company in the electrical and fire safety sector, where she takes 200 calls per day and says it can be hard to juggle her work and sport.
"Yeah sometimes I think it can be difficult. Myself, I want to get up go training, come home do more training just to improve but it's long days. We're up half five, out of the house for seven and then I don't get back until quarter past five. I do my training near enough every day after work just to ensure I can get it in.
“I would appreciate a little bit of leeway with work. It's hard graft having to go to work, come home and then do that but rugby for me and the gym and getting stronger and physically more fit is an outlet for me. I really enjoy it so it is a way for me to relax from work as well.”
Another star balancing rugby league and work is Leeds Rhinos player Abigail Eatock, who is in the army, and she is also hoping to make her debut for England at the World Cup.
Eatock, 19, has only been in the WSL for a year and received her first call-up at the same time as Owen. She feels being uncapped could hamper her chances of making the World Cup.
"I've only been in the Super League a year, I've just rocked up to an England training camp and nobody knows who I am really so the fact that training was cancelled [earlier in the year is a disadvantage].
“Obviously Craig has seen past and present players on the pitch and how they've performed in actual games. It's a bit hard to show yourself in a training session when you're not in the correct game situation.”
If it weren’t for the pandemic Eatock could have played for England earlier this year as they had plans to organise matches. As these didn’t go ahead Eatock could pick up her first cap for her country at the World Cup.
"For me it seems like a bit of a dream but the fact that is a possibility is just, you get lost for words even thinking about it. It's a great opportunity, it's a big thing.
“I cried a little bit [when I found out I was in the England squad] but yeah it was a bit of a shock. I've always wanted this, I've been playing since I was four so the fact that it is even a possibility and the fact I'm part of the squad now it's an achievement on my behalf, it's something that I actually feel proud about. I've not done bad for a first year.
“Coming into the England camp was good, it was hard because we hadn’t trained for a while but it was really good to get back in some sort of routine. In a way it's like you've never stepped away apart from obviously physical fitness went a bit down after seven to eight months [of being away from the sport]!"
And though she may see getting into the squad as a steep hill to climb, if she plays next year or not, she added just having a home World Cup will mean so much for the women’s game in this country.
"It will open it up. It will show it isn't just a northern sport, it'll show everyone can do it, all shapes and all sizes. Any type of person can give it a go and everyone can utilise rugby league and I feel it's a sport everyone can learn from fresh.
“If the women’s game is advertised it shows it isn't just a man's sport and that's what I think is good about it.”