At first glance, rough-and-tumble Rugby League and the smooth strokes of the Boat Race seem to have little in common, writes Rachel Steinberg.
But Rugby Football League (RFL) president Clare Balding believes the annual Thames Tideway tradition is proof positive that this autumn’s Rugby League World Cup in England could establish the code as a world leader in sport equality.
The first Women’s Boat Race was held in 1927, nearly a century after the debut of the men’s competition in 1829, in front of jeering spectators who were vehemently opposed to the notion of female crews.
Four decades later, the situation hadn’t much improved. A letter penned in the mid-1960s by the Selwyn College Boat Club captain to the Cambridge University Boat Club called women’s rowing “a ghastly sight, an anatomical impossibility (if you are rowing properly, that is), and physiologically dangerous.”
It took another half century until, in 2015, the women’s and men’s races were held on the same 6.8 km Championship Course in south west London, on the same day, and with the corresponding level of coverage. Prolific broadcaster Balding famously turned down the Grand National to present the historic event for the BBC.
“I know from my experience at the Boat Race, now the Boat Races,” emphasised Balding, who was speaking at the Women in Sport and Exercise Conference, “that it doesn’t take long before you go, well, what did we do before there was a women’s race as well as a men’s race?
“It was only 2015 when that changed, and having just done the  Boat Race in Ely, it’s so much better an event for having both.
“It’s so much more interesting. Both races were really close.
“And of course it matters just as much if you win, and it hurts just as much if you lose, because it’s one of those contests where you don’t get a silver medal—it’s pretty harsh.”
The 18-day, eight-team women’s Rugby League World Cup campaign kicks off on November 9, with hosts England facing Brazil at Leeds’ Emerald Headingley Stadium.
For only the second time in tournament history—the first was during the last Cup in 2017—the men’s and women’s competitions will be held concurrently, culminating in what organisers promise to be an “epic” finals doubleheader on November 27 at Manchester’s Old Trafford Stadium.
Every women’s match will be broadcast live on BBC platforms. The 21-venue 2021 World Cup will also mark the first time a wheelchair tournament will run alongside the men’s and women’s campaigns.
For Balding, who was appointed the RFL’s 30th president in July 2020, platform sets precedent, and that’s where the Boat Race presented an optimistic case study.
She elaborated: “I think it’s important to show that women can take that challenge on. You know, same distances, same conditions, same coverage, everything.
“It really changes very fast. And I think the Rugby League World Cup will have a big impact, and hopefully will make other sports think about the structure of their championships, their world cups, their big competitions.”
Balding isn’t the first female RFL president—that honour went to Kath Hetherington in 1995—and the OBE recipient is confident she won’t be the last.
She said: “They’re very forward-thinking. They’re great to work with. When they talk about diversity and inclusion, they really mean it. They really want to change things.
“It’s a very strong sport in its local community, and the players don’t tend to change their lives completely.
“They’re not suddenly driving in Lamborghinis and living in mansion houses. They’re still very much a part of the community, and I think that’s why it knows what it is. And it has a real heart.
“So I’m really proud to be their president, and I hope it will encourage more women to be considered for similar roles.”
Balding nearly said no to the job, but she was eventually persuaded by RFL chief executive Ralph Rimmer, who told her, “I know your initial response will be no. And that’s why I think you should say yes.”
Besides, the Cambridge graduate couldn’t pass up the opportunity to be part of another paradigm-shifting event on English soil.
She said: “I think the example of the Rugby Football League, the Rugby League World Cup, is really bold at the moment.
“It’s groundbreaking, but it creates a really good template for working inclusion across all sports.
“And I think it will demonstrate that women aren’t just a homogeneous group, and the intersectionality of women is key to redressing the balance for all women.”
This time, they’ll be met with cheers.