7th July 2019, 09:05 | rfl

Pat Crawshaw - The first female Vice President of the RFL

Pat Crawshaw - The first female Vice President of the RFL

We hear from the long-time champion of women in Rugby League...

As a long-time champion of women in Rugby League, this has surely been the perfect year for Pat Crawshaw to be making her own slice of history as the first female Vice President of the RFL.

Pat was elected last summer to serve alongside Andy Burnham, the Mayor of Greater Manchester, in the game’s two leading ceremonial roles for 2018-19. 

That was recognition of her four decades of service to the community game since she became secretary of Walnut Warriors, the Wakefield amateur club, in 1980.

Pat became the first volunteer to occupy such an exalted position, and is keen to stress that she is representing the hundreds of other volunteers without whom the game simply could not function.

But the former Assistant Headteacher is also doing her bit for female representation in the higher echelons of the game – more than two decades after Kath Hetherington blazed the trail as the first President of the RFL in 1985.

And that is fitting, as the Women’s Super League gathers momentum in its second season, the Women’s Challenge Cup celebrates a new sponsorship deal with Coral, the number of women and girls playing and following the game continues to grow – and the England Women look towards blockbuster fixtures at Anfield and Old Trafford in the 2021 Rugby League World Cup.

“When I think I’ve been banging the drum for women in Rugby League since Julia Lee got me involved on an RFL Steering Group in 2006, it is exciting to see how things are moving forward now,” reflects Pat, who is now nearing the end of her tenure – but continues to represent the RFL at uplifting functions such as the Warners Champion Schools Finals Day in Warrington this week. 

“I’d seen Julia refereeing games down at Walnut – and she was a good referee, no two ways about it. 

“Then she was employed at the RFL when I went on the Barla Board, and she approached me when they wanted an independent chair for a women’s steering group – trying to bring the different sections of the game together. 

“It’s taken a long time, but having said that, I think it’s all come together at the right time – and there’s no doubt that developments in women’s sport generally have helped us make progress in Rugby League.

“The Women’s Super League is really taking off, and the standard across the female game is getting better all the time.

“It’s also getting an increased profile, with events like the Grand Final and the Challenge Cup Final. I presented the trophies at both finals last year and being alongside Ray French for the Women’s Challenge Cup was a particular honour. It’s great news that the final this year will be played at Bolton as a triple header with the men’s semi finals, even though that comes just after the end of my term of office! 

“The same goes for the Women’s Super League and Championship finals in the autumn – but rest assured, I’ll still be there, as an ex-Vice President! 

“With me having come from the community game and as a volunteer, I do want to stress that this hasn’t just happened out of the blue in the last two years. The community clubs have worked hard over several years with the girls teams to bring them to a standard so they can transition to the Open Age game – Caitlin Beevers is a good example of that, now playing at Leeds, and in the England squad and setting such a good example as a match official. But she’d be the first to acknowledge the help she received from volunteers at community clubs. 

“I do think that with the changes at the RFL, there is a greater emphasis on the community game and a greater acknowledgement of the work the volunteers do.”

Pat also has a soft spot, as well as great knowledge, of University and College Rugby, as a Board member since 2006 who took over as Chair in 2014.

“I think when people talk about us as a regional sport, they forget about the spread of the 60 university teams playing the game,” she added.

“It’s from Northumbria to Exeter – and you don’t get much more national than that.

“And I’ve always said that the student game is so important – we attract new people into the game, and provided they get a good experience, you never know where career wise they might end up and what they can put back onto the game. There is a clear representative pathway through Regional, Origin games to the England Universities squad who play in the RFL Presidents Cup, the University Four Nations Tournament and of course the Student World Cup.” 

The Women’s and Student games have come together with the development of the Leeds University team alongside the more established set-up at Liverpool, and Pat hopes that will lead to Festivals involving plenty of other institutions in future years. 

The position has led to the odd unexpected bonus – not least a trip to Buckingham Palace earlier in the summer for one of the Queen’s annual Garden Parties, when her fellow guests included Steve Ganson, Ben Thaler and the RFL’s Chief Regulatory Officer Karen Moorhouse – another of the women in the game’s high-profile positions.

And before handing the vice-presidential reins to Doncaster’s Carl Hall in July, Pat reflects especially fondly on a couple of moments from last year’s men’s Challenge Cup Final at Wembley.

“To walk out on the pitch as part of the Presentation Party  – it wasn’t until I watched it back that I thought it was really me,” she joked. 

“And I also enjoyed catching up with Chev Walker, who was presenting the trophies for the Yr 7 Boys Champions Schools Final. He was one of my pupils in my teaching days in South Leeds – he still calls me Miss, would you believe. I managed to have a picture taken with him, when I was wearing my chain – we were a real little and large!

“I’d also pick out the Wheelchair Grand Finals as another real highlight. The event was brilliantly hosted in Kent by Medway Council, long time supporters of the Wheelchair Rugby League.

“The build-up to the game was amazing and the atmosphere electric throughout the closely contested game between Leeds Rhinos and Halifax – the latter starting as favourites. The passion and skill shown by these athletes as they propel themselves around in their wheelchairs is outstanding. When Leeds held out to beat their rivals the emotions from the players showed just how much this trophy meant to them. To be part of this occasion was a privilege but to present the trophy made it even more memorable.”