Home Sports Three teams and a Cilla Black gameshow: the first Women’s Rugby League World Cup

Three teams and a Cilla Black gameshow: the first Women’s Rugby League World Cup

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Three teams and a Cilla Black gameshow: the first Women’s Rugby League World Cup

The buildup, hype and buzz England’s women have experienced as they prepare for their tilt at the Rugby League World Cup could not be in greater contrast to the experiences of Jackie Sheldon and her squad of trailblazers 22 years ago.

It may be a little over two decades but the journey women’s rugby league has been on during that time feels much longer, a point that will be emphasised when Emily Rudge and her teammates kick off against Brazil on Tuesday at Headingley in front of a northern hemisphere record crowd for a women’s rugby league match. It will be markedly different to what the players experienced on a series of low-key, easily overlooked nights in November 2000.

Few will look on with as much pride as Sheldon, not least because without her endeavours to stage that inaugural women’s World Cup we may not have even reached this moment. “Women’s rugby league had never had an international competition of any note before 2000,” says Sheldon, who coached Great Britain in the tournament.

She had been part of the coaching staff when the Great Britain Lionesses toured Australia for the first time in 1996. She then led them on a tour to New Zealand two years later. “There was really only three nations playing at that time, so when I was asked to help set up a women’s World Cup, it was only ever going to be three teams.”

Australia and New Zealand accepted the invitations from Sheldon but the hard work was only just beginning. Devoid of any significant funding, Sheldon – who also assumed the role of tournament organiser – began to beg, steal and borrow.

“In the towns where we wanted to host games, I had to go to the local authorities and plead with them to sponsor the matches and in return, I’d give the local girls in the town some coaching sessions,” she says, before laughing. “I suppose it was a bit like horse trading. That was just to get the money to put the tournament on.”

Contrast that with the millions of pounds of investment that has gone into this year’s tournament and near-professional camps the eight teams will experience. In 2000, there were games scheduled in Castleford and Dewsbury, and expectations that crowds would not get beyond a few hundred, given the lack of any serious women’s domestic league in England, came to fruition. For this sixth World Cup, games are being held at major rugby league grounds with the final at Old Trafford as part of a double-header with the men.

Sheldon had something else to juggle: getting her squad not only match-ready to face Australia and New Zealand, but available to play. “We ran a camp, but it cost money,” she says. “We did everything – bucket collections, sponsorship for the kits, but we also asked any girl who was called up to bring £1,000 to help pay for it all. They all took unpaid leave from their jobs, so the sacrifices were immense.”

Even with all that fundraising, Sheldon needed more money, so she hatched an incredible plan. “I had a call from Cilla Black’s people,” she says, smiling. “She was hosting a gameshow around that time called The Moment of Truth and they asked if we’d be interested in doing a team challenge to win £5,000.

“They wanted to know what we’d use the money for and I thought that would be perfect for the team suits. So we set the girls to work: not training for the tournament, but training to be on Cilla Black’s gameshow.

England’s Emily Rudge (centre) and Brazil’s Maria Graf (left) with Clare Balding (right)
England’s Emily Rudge (centre) and Brazil’s Maria Graf (right) will lead out their teams for the opening match at Headingley. Photograph: Ashley Allen/Getty Images for RLWC2021

“Five of them had to juggle a diabolo from one end of a stick to another, pass it on to the next one and reach the end of the line. They didn’t manage to do it in rehearsals once. But before they went on stage, live in front of the nation, I told them to forget about the suits and just enjoy the experience. They went out and did it for the first and only time, winning the £5,000.

“Without that money, I don’t know how we’d have coped. It was aired on TV the night before our first game. We all watched it in camp and it brought us together.”

Sheldon gave a group of students at Dewsbury College the task to design the tournament’s logo. The winner received £500. When the tournament kicked off, just 750 watched Great Britain run New Zealand close in Orrell, losing 22-12.

“On the 1998 tour, the average points difference between us was 33 points but in that first game, we got within 10,” Sheldon says. “We’d really tried to make sure we improved in time for the World Cup and we couldn’t have done it without a whole array of support staff. We drafted so many volunteers in. The coaching staff, the doctors, everyone did it for free.

“We didn’t have big crowds, but we had some great games and the people who did come would agree.”

Great Britain made the final at Warrington’s Wilderspool, but they were beaten 26-4 by New Zealand – 1,262 people were there. On Tuesday afternoon, more than 10 times that many will watch England begin their quest for World Cup glory against debutants Brazil.

It is a long way from the empty stadiums and the under-the-radar nature of what happened in 2000. “I’m very proud I played my part in making that happen, and lay the platform for what we’ll see this year,” Sheldon says. “We couldn’t have done it without so many people working for free. I’m honoured. And I hope the girls this year can inspire a new nation of women to pick up a rugby league ball.”

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