England’s Amy Hardcastle helps thrash Brazil in Women’s Rugby League World Cup opener

Those at the forefront of women’s rugby league in England have made no secret of their desire to capitalise on what the Lionesses achieved this year at the European Championship, and this match was about as good a start as they could have hoped for –both on and off the field.

On a cold, grey Tuesday afternoon in Leeds, the biggest crowd for a women’s rugby league game in the UK watched the hosts start their campaign impressively against Brazil Amazonas, playing only their third game of rugby league.

It was not quite the crowd organisers had hoped for, however, with the initial plan to set the all‑time attendance for a women’s rugby game of either code, which is just shy of 16,000. But if this occasion was a taste of what is to come, this will be an unforgettable tournament in more ways than one.

Craig Richards’s England players did their best to contribute to the occasion, too. Granted, they were always likely to run out comfortable winners but they handled the expectation well and sauntered to an opening-day victory. Amy Hardcastle and Courtney Winfield‑Hill both claimed hat-tricks, and the hosts scored 14 tries.

But this was just as big a day for the women’s game off the field as well as on it. For the first time in World Cup history, the women’s tournament will hand out prize money and participation fees to those involved. Last week Leeds Rhinos announced they would be the first domestic team to financially reward their players with win bonuses.

They are both significant steps towards women’s rugby league in England turning professional and days, and crowds, such as this will accelerate that progress.

“We’re trying to create a legacy and we don’t shy away from it,” Richards said afterwards. “These girls are perfect for doing that; they’ve done it tough in the past, and we want to inspire the next generation. But we’re trying to win this tournament, not just win the odd game.”

Brazil provided plenty of effort and spirit, as did their supporters which included a samba band that played non-stop all afternoon. But it was apparent from an early stage that England would dominate. But for a side that had played only two internationals before this, Brazil acquitted themselves well against one of the tournament’s favourites.

However, England’s star-studded side was too strong. They moved 12-0 ahead when Caitlin Beevers and Winfield-Hill cut through the defence before Winfield-Hill, the Australian‑born former Big Bash cricketer who pledged her allegiance to England for the tournament, scored her second.

By half-time England were out of sight. Grace Field burst through for the fourth try before the outstanding Hardcastle proved unstoppable as she charged over. Tara-Jane Stanley then made it 34-0 on the stroke of half-time after finishing a fine England move – and though Brazil had competed, they had been ruthlessly outplayed.

The biggest cheer of the day was reserved for Brazil’s first World Cup try on the hour, as Natália Momberg raced away to spark joyous scenes among the Amazonas players. But by then Stanley and Hardcastle had crossed for two more England tries to make it 44-0.

Momberg’s try was a World Cup moment to savour, but it stirred England up a gear or two. That was emphasised when Hardcastle hit a fantastic angle to claim her hat‑trick, before she turned provider for Burke to finish in the corner. Winfield-Hill then claimed her third before Olivia Wood rounded off the scoring in the final seconds. But the final moment went to the Amazonas, who received a standing ovation from Headingley at full-time.

The thousands of schoolchildren in attendance certainly seemed to enjoy every try, making plenty of noise. If just one of the 8,621 spectators in attendance goes into their school on Wednesday morning dreaming of being the next Hardcastle or Winfield-Hill, then this tournament’s legacy has already been secured after just one game.