The weekend saw the return of the Women’s Super League after 18 months, three pre-seasons and a repetition of “off the bus, on the bus” return to play.
We finally saw eight teams play their first games under current government Covid guidelines. Due to this, the restrictions meant that only 19 players, coaches and select background staff were able to attend. Specific areas were set in place, ensuring that social distancing was adhered to also. All attendees were limited to a traffic light system including myself as media and masks were worn at all times by non-players or within the player green area.
To put this into perspective, the players were tested (lateral flow tests) at their respective clubs and once they entered the stadium at Victoria Park their temperature was then further checked. None of the players were permitted to shower after the game and left quickly after their post stretch and team round up. Supporters were kindly reminded not to attend and were unable to enter the stadium, whilst the media and background staff were also limited.
I caught up with Ralph Rimmer, who spent the whole day watching both games. He spoke of his excitement for the women and the anticipated 2021 World Cup.
CJ: “So, we are back, how do you feel about the return of the WSL?”
Ralph: “Well it’s exciting and it’s been a long time coming. We have the World Cup at the end of the year and it’s crucial that the women get back to business and get back to playing. I think the women in particular suffered last year through to the fact that they had no competitions and we are always concerned about how the players will come back if the numbers will be there and with the same kind of enthusiasm as before. Today has proved that the numbers and enthusiasm are there and I am pleased to see that all the hard work that the players and club have done throughout the lockdowns has paid off. Today is a massive launch party and it’s a signpost for the rest of the season and leading into the World Cup. Its great to be back!
CJ: “So what are your thoughts on the standard of rugby played today?”
Ralph: “I think Wigan were very impressive, I also think that all coaches will agree that the teams are slightly rusty – it’s hardly surprising given the amount of time that women have been laid off. Saying that, there are some extremely talented and good athletes out there as you would know yourself as you have played with and against these women.
CJ: “The new system in place for the WSL is the top tier system where essentially the top four will break off and the remainder will play for a shield, saying that there is limited time for teams to get that game time for the pending World Cup. Do you feel we have the time to make an impact in the 2021 tournament?”
Ralph: “Well we are pushed for time, because we have missed a year out and the other restrictions which are on us. The more I watch this game, the more I see better and better athletes each week. I can see the building and I also speak to players on a regular basis and these women are very focused on the World Cup. I’m lucky enough to sit socially distanced from Craig Richards (England head coach). He is extremely focussed, and we see the work that they have been doing and the intensity within the elite squad. We can’t look and think we are running out of time because from what I have seen, it looks to me that it is all in hand and we look like we have the ability to put us in a half-decent place.”
CJ: “Claire Balding spoke about our financial backing and we’ve been looking at a large sponsor. Do you feel that we as a sport are heading in the right direction with sponsors?”
Ralph: “I don’t think it’s just about finance, I got the Camelot sponsorship and Betfred can wrap around the competition as well. It’s also about momentum, I believe the women’s game – not just the Women’s Super League – has a real momentum behind it at this moment in time. Women’s sport – in general and as far as Rugby League goes – has a fantastic trajectory and we just have to keep pushing.”
CJ: “Finally, I’m happy to announce that 24 thousand people signed into the twitch app to watch the women’s game, how do you feel about that colossal number?”
Ralph: “It gets me giddy! How brilliant is that? I’m glad we have twitch to facilitate it. When we spoke about momentum there’s no better example than that.”