On Saturday morning I attended the WRLA Yorkshire ladies’ trials and met with Featherstone Lions head coach Les Blackburn and his assistants, Joe Westwood and Christian Moore.
The day started with 26 women from teams all over Yorkshire being introduced to all the staff, as well as receiving itinerary for the day. Les used visual aids on a white board and wrote out the expectations in clear as to what the coaches are looking for and the standards required.
As mentioned, players attended from teams across the whole of Yorkshire, with South Leeds Spartans, Odsal, Oulton Raidettes and Featherstone Lionesses starting off in the indoor area with Ex-Toronto strength and conditioner Dave Downs. Dave explained and demonstrated some rather challenging warm-up exercises testing agility and strength. The girls then went into full contact defensive 2.1 drill, from the first tackle I could see that these women were here to impress.
Leaving the shed, the women then went onto fitness training. Christian utilised every inch of the pitch, the women were to run to each 10 as a defensive line, up to the 50, then turn around and play a left vs. right drill. I could sense how changeling it was, but regardless of this the women dug in and towards the end all were visibly tired. The trial ended in game play with each player given time to showcase their abilities.
Katy Fisher, 19, of Oulton Raidettes was also successful in the Leeds Rhinos 19’s trials this year and I managed to stop her for a quick chat. “I wanted to trial for my county, broaden my playing experience and to meet other players from different teams,” said Katy. I then asked her initially attracted her to rugby league, she answered: “I was told I was too aggressive in other sports, my friends were joining rugby league teams, So, I thought I’d give it a go.”
Libbie Beckett, 19, of Odsal, has played in the 2019 Women’s Super League this season for Bradford Bulls and has more than held her own. She is another player keen to represent her county. “I want to play for Yorkshire for a sense of achievement and pride,” she said.
Mia Clarke of Featherstone Lions, also successful at Leeds Rhinos under 19’s said: “My aim is to reach SL off the back of the under 19’s and I believe that playing for Yorkshire will give me the experience I need.”
Jodie Connor of South Leeds Spartans, again another Leeds Rhinos under 19’s player, also echoed the thoughts of those above and told me she believes playing for Yorkshire will enhance her playing career and help her with different coaching styles.
To be eligible to trail and play in the Origin team, the players must be signed to a winter WRLA team and also have played at least two games before the Origin game is played. I asked coaches Les and Joe as to why this new ruling is enforced and what effect that may have on the summer players if they are having a break from the previous season?
Me (CJ), Les Blackburn (LB), Joe Westwood (JW)
LB: I can fully understand that the winter teams are a slower set pace and most women who play may prefer to play in winter. Those at WSL, more than likely, will want to take a break and this gives the women who don’t or aren’t inclined to play at a higher level a chance to play for their county.
CJ: With WSL being the ultimate level to aim for, do you believe that it is taking away players from the winter leagues?
LB: I’m involved at Featherstone Rovers too; they are brilliant down there and we are their feeder team. If anyone stands out at the Lionesses, I recommend them to Rovers. Super League should be where every woman should be striving to be. We are hoping that in the coming years the winter leagues can run on side of that. I do know that there are girls who just prefer the winter season, however in my opinion, for those who have any ambition to play at the top, the winter league and Yorkshire is a great steppingstone and development tool.
JW: In my view I believe WRLA are very proud in their league and the hard work they have set up in the past, however if a player is told by WSL not to play winter league, they have reached the highest they can achieve other than international and they must do what is best for their personal development.
CJ: It’s no secret I played in WSL with York City Knights and at no time was I ever told not to play in the winter league, however I can’t speak for other teams. Do you think this is maybe just a rumour?
LB: I can confirm that too from a Featherstone Rovers’ point of view, as players from both my teams play in both seasons, although any players that have a niggle or physio requirement are told to use the off-season to rest and recuperate.
CJ: I’ve noticed that there is quite some diversity in the players at trials today, lots of youth and also mature players, what’s are your thoughts on the age difference in women’s rugby league?
LB: I believe we need that dynamic in any team, I can use Featherstone as an example – we have Andrea Dobson who is an icon we can use in the game, yet we have 16-year-old women who are winning awards in the WSL. There is a definite divide of the mature players and now this influx of 16+ coming through WRLA and they are truly testing their own abilities at open age rugby. This will in turn benefit summer rugby, it really helps with that step and WRLA helps with that transition. It’s a slower game compared to summer rugby and it removes the fear out of player’s heads to make the tackle.
JW: Unfortunately a lot of girls leave rugby at 16 because they have to go up to women’s rugby and they aren’t ready for that large step. WRLA is the perfect way to introduce them, it gives them the tools and confidence to make that step and we as coaches don’t want to see any girl leave because the gap is so vast.
CJ: The level of instruction and intensity was at a high level today, watching the first hit in the hut shows they were here to impress. How are the coaches going to select on a trial of two hours?
JW: That first hit was from a 16-year-old. There is going to be a few headaches for us in selection, there are some good young girls out there who have been put through their paces at a brutal session and they have not backed down.
CJ: In terms of moving forward, how do you see WRLA in the Origin game?
LB: Hopefully we can continue building on the back of what we did last year, getting that one in front. Representative rugby should be up there with WSL.
JW: We want to bring it to a professional standard, with the likes of Dave Downs coming down and giving the women a glimpse of what the professional standard can be. We want to show the women the level and commitment they have to put in to play for professional teams. You yourself know what is expected at the top level, there are times for fun but when you’re striving to be the best you have to commit to it fully.
CJ: I can totally echo that, I’m a bit of a stickler for discipline and I excel in teams where the team are fully committed, coming from rugby union and playing for the British Army and Wasps. I do struggle with some of the amateur attitudes, hence why I moved to WSL.
The second trial will be held at Featherstone Lions Rugby Club on Sunday, 24 November at 10am. The Yorkshire vs. Lancashire Origin game date is yet to be set, however Les hopes that there will be a home and away game this year, which will certainly add more interest to the fixture.