Kevin Sinfield left an indelible mark on English rugby league during his career as a player, but if Leeds Rhinos lift the women’s Challenge Cup on Saturday and England follow suit in the Rugby League World Cup this autumn, a conversation Sinfield held three years ago will have undoubtedly played a part.
It was late-2019 when Courtney Winfield-Hill considered ending her stint as one of the pioneering stars of the Women’s Super League and potentially returning to the sport where she initially made her name back home in Australia. A former star of the Big Bash League, Winfield-Hill wondered if it was the right time to pursue a cricketing career once again. “The financial rewards were a lot higher, getting a contract to play cricket in England, but what Kevin said kept gnawing away at me,” Winfield-Hill explains.
Sinfield, then working for the Rhinos in an off-field role, politely reminded her that if she continued playing league for long enough, she would ultimately qualify for England under the sport’s five-year residency rule. “Kevin had spent a lot of time with me, working on my game and he wanted to know what was next,” she reveals. “I was set on going to have a try at get a contract in cricket for sure at that stage, but he planted the England seed, and it made me think.”
Fast forward to the present day, and plenty has changed. Winfield-Hill has married her long-term partner, the England cricket international, Lauren Winfield-Hill, and the postponement of the World Cup to this autumn has opened the door for the Leeds Rhinos star to potentially represent England in the tournament after she officially qualified in February. She was almost immediately named in Craig Richards’ train-on squad.
That is no surprise, given Winfield-Hill’s undeniable talent. Before all of that though, there is the prospect of the Rhinos trying to reclaim the Women’s Challenge Cup in front of a home crowd on Saturday at Elland Road when they take on St Helens. The game forms part of a triple-header with the two men’s Challenge Cup semi-finals and after spending most of the last two years on hiatus due to Covid-19, Winfield-Hill is in no doubt about the importance of Saturday’s game for both Leeds and the wider women’s game.
“We had some terrific momentum building into 2020, some great media exposure and it was incredibly disheartening to just see the 2020 season completely canceled,” she admits. “With this being a triple-header, I hope there’s a lot of rugby league fans that haven’t been to a women’s game before and we can put on a show for them.”
The game will be televised live on the BBC, another significant step for the growth of the women’s game following the advent of the Women’s Super League in 2018. “It’s great the BBC are providing free-to-air coverage and a real platform,” she says. “The continued growth of the women’s game relies upon it, and it’s the starting point for a big year with a looming World Cup. Winning it in Leeds, for Leeds, would be one of the most special moments of my career. ”
But just like the rest of the rugby league public, Winfield-Hill finds it difficult not to have at least one eye on this year’s World Cup. “If someone had told me five years ago I’d be potentially playing for England against Australia, I’d have questioned their sanity,” the 35-year-old laughs. “But I’m all-in for England no matter what. The way the rugby league community has embraced me here meant it was an easy opportunity to say yes to and stay in rugby league. ”
Leeds’ chances of success on Saturday, and indeed England’s later this year, are much better with Winfield-Hill still in the sport. She has been one of the standout players in the women’s game despite not playing since junior level prior to moving to England with Lauren in 2018. “Australia will always be home in some ways but right now, Leeds is home and England is home,” she says.
How would she do with the prospect of an England versus Australia World Cup final, though? “I’d absolutely love it,” she says. “I’d obviously be quietly hoping England won; well, not quietly, very loudly, as I’d hopefully be playing! I’m committed to delivering for England and Leeds for as long as possible. When Kevin spoke to me three years ago I wasn’t sure where my future was heading in rugby league but staying here, being part of something historic for club and now maybe country too, I think I’ve made the right decision. “