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World Cup a ‘pinch-me moment’ for England

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World Cup a ‘pinch-me moment’ for England

Venue: Headingley Stadium, Leeds Date: Tuesday, 1 November Kick-off: 14:30 GMT
Coverage: Watch live on BBC Two, BBC iPlayer and online; Listen on BBC Radio 5 Sports Extra; Live text and highlights on BBC Sport website and app.

The Rugby League World Cup will be a “pinch-me moment” for England forward Jodie Cunningham.

A record crowd of up to 15,000 is expected when the hosts open the tournament against Brazil at Leeds’ Headingley Stadium on Tuesday.

Cunningham – one of 11 St Helens players in the England squad – said the tournament could herald a new era.

“This is a world apart from previous tournaments I’ve played in,” said Cunningham who played in 2013 and 2017.

“I thought it could never get any better than 2017 but if you compare the coverage and profile – and it being live on the BBC – you can see people realise the value of women’s rugby league.

“It is one of those pinch-me moments.”

Cunningham, 30, is one of four survivors from the last England squad to play in a home World Cup nine years ago, along with captain Emily Rudge, record try-scorer Amy Hardcastle and Tara Jane‑Stanley.

For that four-team tournament, some squads had to self-fund.

This time, the men’s, women’s and wheelchair editions are taking place concurrently, with eight nations competing in the women’s event and four different continents represented for the first time.

With England still part-time, Australia – whose players compete in the fully professional NRL women’s competition – have been cast as clear favourites.

‘We used to get changed in bars’

Cunningham, who helped Saints win the Challenge Cup in May, is all too aware of the significant shift in the women’s game.

“The changes are ridiculous,” the 2021 Woman of Steel told BBC Sport. “If you did a behind-the-scenes in 2013 and now, it would be incomparable.

“I remember before one of the international matches we got changed in a bar because there was no changing room, so we just had little stools with our shirts on.

“Most of the time the kit didn’t fit and that was still a challenge in 2017. People can underestimate these things but at elite level if your shirt is a little bit loose and someone can grab it, they are the margins.

“Attention to detail in the women’s game wasn’t there before. You could have counted on one hand how many staff we had.

“Now we have strength and conditioning staff, sports science analysts, physios, doctors, coaching support and nutritionists. We have been given the tools to perform.”

Juggling priorities & using the Lionesses as inspiration

There is still a balancing act, though.

England only went into camp on 28 October – the day the women’s tournament launched – and have had just three days of preparation as a squad before their opening match to limit the time players have to take off work.

Rudge – a PE teacher who has captained the national side since 2018 – said that could be a thing of the past if England can emulate football’s Lionesses and claim a major title at home.

“It’s really difficult – it’s like having two full-time jobs and there’s not enough hours in the day to do everything to the best of your ability,” she said.

“It’s a massive challenge, but hopefully it won’t be forever, and this will be the last World Cup where women are working as well as trying to be a full-time international athletes. Watching the Lionesses and what they achieved was massively inspirational.

“If we can win the World Cup, I think asking women to go back to their full-time jobs would be difficult. We’ve got a massive part to play, and having success in this tournament will push things to change sooner.”

Leeds full-back Caitlin Beevers also believes the tournament could be a catalyst to nurture the stars of tomorrow.

“The World Cup is going to be massive for the women’s game. We can see the game developing with younger age groups. When I started, you could only play for the lads’ teams,” said Beevers.

“I used to look up to the men, which was fine, but it’s great to see the shift.”

Rudge added: “The school that I work at have booked trips to bring a lot of the kids down to watch games. It is exciting for the kids that they can watch people they are around playing on such a big stage.

“The kids are following it so much more. I get a lot of ‘good luck Miss’ messages – but if I do something wrong I also get a bit of stick.”

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