Historic ‘Pride of the Lionesses’ event is dream come true for former Hull Rugby League Referee

As England Women celebrated a win in their Rugby League World Cup fixture against Papua New Guinea last week another landmark occasion was also being marked at Headingley Stadium in Leeds.  

Back row: Jo Taylor, Nikki Carter, Theresa Bruce, Debbie Rice, Donna Rogers. Front row Lisa Hunter, Donna Parker and Nicola Benstead.

Over 400 people gathered for a special Rugby League Pride of the Lionesses event, inspired by former Rugby League referee Julia Lee from Hull, which recognised women who made outstanding contributions to the game.

The Pride of the Lionesses event honoured over 100 former GB and England Lionesses, who played in the 1990s and early 2000s.  They were presented with their caps and heritage numbers, for the very first time, by former Lioness, and member of the Women’s Rugby League Hall of Fame, Brenda Dobek, and former GB coaches Jackie Sheldon and Ian Harris.

The event has long been the dream of Julia who set up a heritage project called Life with the Lionesses’ earlier this year.  The project aims to engage with the wider community, both inside and outside of Rugby League, and to deliver a programme of activities that will celebrate the history of the women’s game.  In addition, it is showcasing the achievements of women involved in Rugby League and using the stories of rugby’s women pioneers to inspire new generations.

 “The Pride of the Lionesses Dinner was a fabulous event with everyone, finally, getting the recognition they deserve,” said Julia.

“These women are the pioneers of women’s Rugby League and have truly paved the way for the young players of today.”

The Dinner was supported by BBC sports reporter Tanya Arnold, and introduced by Clare Balding President of the Rugby Football League.

Fans had the opportunity to rub shoulders with former Rugby League internationals such as Brenda Dobek, Lisa McIntosh and Sally Milburn who have recently been inducted into the RFL Women’s Rugby League Hall of Fame.

In addition former players from Hull were in attendance including Nikki Carter and Donna Parker.  Several other former players flew all the way from Australia and New Zealand, where they now live, to attend the event.

At the event 71 former GB, and 43 England players received their caps and heritage numbers.  In addition 12 dual internationals, who played for GB and England each received two caps.

Nikki Carter, who originally played for Hull Vixens and was Team Manager for the first GB Lionesses tour to Australia in 1996, said:

“I have always been proud to have played Rugby League and to have managed, and been a part of, the successful tour to Australia in 1996.

“To attend the Pride of the Lionesses event and receive recognition for our achievements was truly fantastic. It was amazing to be in the room with so many former teammates and to share that recognition with family and friends. 

“I am thankful that, through Julia’s hard work and dedication, the Rugby Football League has now recognised the sacrifice, commitment and achievement of former lionesses.”

Rugby Football League (RFL) CEO, Ralph Rimmer, said:

“This event was a long overdue opportunity to rebalance the scales. Built into the RLWC schedule, it was a chance to celebrate the achievements of those women who previously went unrecognised and also acknowledge their role in bringing the women’s game to where it is at this moment in time. A great, and fitting, occasion of which it was a privilege for us all to be part”

The event included recognition of the role of non-players who were awarded the RFL Roll of Honour by Bradford South MP, and Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Rugby League Group.  Julia received an award for her services to Rugby League throughout her career.  Other recipients included:

Jackie Sheldon, a former coach and women’s Ruby League development officer from Castleford;  trailblazing sports journalist Julie Stott, originally from Morley in Leeds, who cut her teeth at the Rothwell Advertiser and Dewsbury Reporter;  Sue Taylor, from Huddersfield, an unsung hero of Community Rugby League; and life-long Press Association Rugby League reporter Ian Laybourn from Holmfirth  were all recognised for their pioneering contribution across Rugby League through recent decades – whether in refereeing, campaigning, coaching, journalism or administration and volunteering with a specific focus on the community game.

There was also a chance to see the Life with the Lionesses exhibition which showcases the personal journeys of the women pioneers of international Rugby League.  Visitors could follow their groundbreaking journey on and off the field and see their stories and experiences brought to life, from fundraising their own tour to playing on an equal stage with their male counterparts in this year’s World Cup.   The exhibition says at Leeds until 13 November, then it moves to York and then Wigan .

The Life with the Lionesses project, is funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund and runs over the next  three months.  Julia is working alongside Rugby League Cares, the Rugby Football League, the Rugby League World Cup 2021 and Heritage Quay at the University of Huddersfield to build a permanent public archive.  Activities are focussing around Huddersfield, Hull, Leeds, St Helens, Sheffield, Wakefield, Warrington, Wigan and York.