She may well have grown up 12,000 miles away in Queensland, but Courtney Winfield-Hill does not need any education about the importance this Saturday has for women’s rugby league in Leeds. Having become an integral part of Leeds Rhinos’ women’s side since the advent of the Women’s Super League, Hill is undisputedly one of the standout names, and stars, in the women’s game in England these days.
That has been underlined by her call-up to the England squad in anticipation of this year’s World Cup, after qualifying on the five-year residency rule, a threshold she only passed in February of this year.
But before all the excitement a home World Cup provides, there is a more immediate focus for Winfield-Hill and her Leeds team-mates this weekend – lifting the Challenge Cup in their home city, buoyed on by a bumper crowd, some of whom will be in attendance solely to cheer on the Rhinos. It is a moment, and an occasion, she is relishing.
Read more: Leeds Rhinos’ key stat leaders after 11 rounds of the Super League season
“It would be probably the most special thing we’ve achieved so far,” Winfield-Hill tells Leeds Live. “There’s hopefully going to be a lot of Leeds locals here, and we have an appetite to do it for them as well as ourselves and create something really special. It would be one of the most special moments of my entire career.”
A champion of the development of the women’s game, success for Leeds this weekend would also have an impact far beyond lifting a trophy in the eyes of Winfield-Hill.
“It’s very exciting,” she says. “It was an extra incentive I suppose to be here, it being in Leeds. I’m not a local but I’m understanding of how special this ground is, so I can imagine that’s ten-fold for the local girls, particularly the Leeds United fans within the group.
“The venue itself, you can feel there’s a special energy here and it has such a rich history in the city, so to follow in the footsteps of some famous names across different sports is very exciting. But this is about more than the game.
“With it 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. I’d like to think we can set the tone and get a real energy going for the rest of the day. You miss the crowds throughout the pandemic and I can’t wait to play in front of a big audience. It’s what we’re here for.”
While the male stars of the game played on through the pandemic in empty stadiums, the women’s game was put on a complete hiatus. That threatened to stunt the encouraging growth made in recent years, but Winfield-Hill believes occasions like Saturday, live on the BBC, provide a huge opportunity to progress.
“There was a fear the growth would be delayed,” she admits. “We had some terrific momentum building into 2020, some great media exposure and some people making great connections in the game. But you have to adapt through things like that and I sense that things are building again. There’s a real buzz growing again in the game. women’s game, and to see young girls and parents engaging with us is very encouraging.
“It’s great the BBC are providing free-to-air coverage and a real platform. The continued growth of the women’s game relies upon it, and it’s the starting point for a big year with a World Cup looming on the horizon. It’s all for the good of the long-term development, but we all want to get our hands on that trophy this weekend. Having not been able to play for it in 2020, and then failing to get to the final last year, it was something we targeted from the start. We want to do this for Leeds.”