When Courtney Hill and her Leeds Rhinos team-mates left the field following their triumph in the 2019 Women’s Super League Grand Final, little did they know it would be their last game for over a year.
Any hopes of the 2020 campaign starting were extinguished by the Covid-19 pandemic, but the women’s top flight now being granted elite sport status by the government means the competition finally has a resumption date of April 18.
Hill and the rest of the Rhinos squad are midway through a six-week pre-season training programme, with many having not seen each other since the first UK lockdown, and the reigning Woman of Steel has her fingers crossed there will be no stopping the 2021 season from getting under way as planned.
“It seems like forever, really,” the 2019 Woman of Steel Hill told Sky Sports. “We’ve got a date and we’ve got fixtures coming out, and it gives you hope.
“I think that was probably the most disappointing thing last year when that hope was dwindling away and slipping through your fingers – and then there was none for a period. Now we’re only three weeks away and there are a lot of very excited girls around, I can tell you.
“There’s nothing like being back together in a group or a team sport, so the return to training was certainly met with a lot of excitement like that first day back at school.
“Everyone had stories to tell and we were all a bit giddy to be there, but we’re certainly back into the grind now.”
Hill was at least able to keep some involvement in elite sport last year through her work coaching the Northern Diamonds cricket team and the former bowler is continuing that alongside her rugby league playing commitments in 2021.
But while the cricket season was eventually able to get underway, there were other competitions along with the Women’s Super League across all sport which were either postponed or cancelled entirely.
Among those being postponed was rugby union’s Women’s Six Nations, which was followed by Wales international Elinor Snowshill composing a powerful social media post in response to trolls who claimed no one cares.
Half-back Hill was among the athletes from all sporting backgrounds who spoke up in support of the #ICare movement sparked by Snowshill’s post and is in no doubt there are far more positives to celebrate about how women’s sport is growing.
“Moments like that are unfortunate, but the women’s sport world is so collective it doesn’t matter what code of football you play or what sport you play,” Hill said.
“Women’s sport, we’re all for each other and it’s great to see everyone jumps on the back of each other. We’re each other’s biggest cheerleaders. If we can’t do that then who will be?
“There is just still so much more positivity than negativity. We’ve just got to grasp that, and that’s the audience we play for.”
To underline that, the release of the RFL’s ‘These Girls Can’ report earlier this week revealed how participation in women’s rugby league has grown 53 per cent since 2017, including sharp increases in the number of female coaches, match officials and volunteers along with players.
And while the return of the Women’s Super League will no doubt help that progress, Hill believes the focus should also be on the Rugby League World Cup at the end of the year, which is being held in England and sees the men’s, women’s and wheelchair tournament being played alongside each other.
“Certainly, on a performance front it’s been really great to hear the England women’s performance programme has really been ramping it up in anticipation for the World Cup at the end of the year,” Hill said.
“They’ve been training really hard since the back end of last year, so game time will be fantastic for them. I think what we’ve got to look at this year is the bigger picture.
“Yes, we’re getting a domestic competition back on, but we’ve got a World Cup. It will be great to have our clubs back, but we are preparing to enable England to have the best squad to compete with the best in the world come November.”
For her part, Hill just cannot wait to be back out on the field, but she will get a long-awaited taste of live rugby league when she appears on Sky Sports as guest pundit for Saturday’s two Super League games between Wakefield Trinity and Leeds Rhinos, and Catalans Dragons and Hull Kingston Rovers.
The Australian has been enjoying watching the opening rounds of the 2021 NRL season, yet the experience of being there in person is one she is relishing – along with crowds hopefully being allowed back into games later in the year.
“Having a couple of rounds of the NRL back already, I’ve been setting up the alarm early to get up and watch it,” Hill said.
“But there’s nothing like live rugby league, is there? It will be great to have it on the TV, but it’s one more step to getting crowds back in which will be very special and welcomed with open arms.”