The girls of Batley Bulldogs’ ground-breaking Under 16s rugby league team are about to see a new play inspired by their actions – both on and off the pitch.
While The Ruck is a work of fiction, playwright Kevin Fegan has drawn material from the real lives of the girls and their families, and even followed them across the world in his quest for authenticity. The play premieres at the Lawrence Batley Theatre in Huddersfield on September 15.
Back in 2015, when the teenagers became the first British girls’ team to tour Australia, Kevin was invited to join the expedition and spent three weeks watching the girls train and play in the sweltering Queensland heat. It was an experience none of them will forget – and has now been captured for posterity in The Ruck.
Kevin, author of more than 50 plays over a 30 year career (which included being a storyline writer for Coronation Street), was commissioned by North Kirklees arts project Creative Scene to produce a work about rugby league. He explained: “I went along to the breakfast club at Batley Bulldogs and talked to fans, players and their families. I was looking for a play.
“Then I went to see the girls play a game and talked to them afterwards, and knew straight away that I’d found it. I was ignorant about rugby league (or the fact that it originated in Huddersfield), Batley or teenage girls – so it was a steep learning curve.”
The trip to Australia was a playwright’s dream. He said: “It was a real chance to get to know the girls, their parents, grandparents and brothers and sisters. There was a big group of 60 of us. I said to them ‘I’m going to write about this’, but that didn’t stop them being very open with me.
“But drama is different from a documentary and in a play fact becomes fiction. It was important to me to investigate what it’s like to grow up in Batley. Becoming a teenager is a right of passage and rugby becomes a metaphor for that.”
The play’s storyline, which is split between Batley and Australia, features a young Asian girl, Iffy, who joins the team and becomes a catalyst for much of the action. Kevin tackles a wide range of contemporary and timeless issues - from racial discrimination, gender assignment and deep-hidden family secrets to boy (and girl) relationship problems.
In reality, the Bulldogs have yet to enrol any Asian girls to play rugby, but Kevin and the Under 16s girls’ coach Craig Taylor believe it’s only a matter of time.
Craig, whose daughters Millie, 16, and Mya, 14, both play rugby, has been coaching the team for five years, during which time the girls have won the English championship twice and at club level remained undefeated for four years. “They are a pretty special team,” says Craig. “For a group of girls who have all the problems and issues of growing up in this area, to go to Australia was a massive achievement.
“Here rugby league is not a mainstream sport, but out there in Australia rugby league is a religion. It was a great experience for them.”
Without Craig there would be no team. He took on the challenge when Millie, and his niece Casey Rhodes, who were playing junior mixed rugby, said they’d like to continue. Today the girls play in both the Under 16s and women’s teams.
Women’s rugby league is growing in popularity and Craig is convinced that it won’t be long before there are professional women’s teams in the UK. He explained: “Next year it’s going full time professional in Australia and we will follow suit. These girls want to go all the way, they are very dedicated players. If they were boys they would have been snapped up by a professional team by now.”
He’s ambitious for his girls’ team and last year visited Pakistan to see how the game is played there by young women. He’s keen to promote girls’ rugby league in the Batley area’s Asian community and believes there could be plenty of young Iffys waiting in the wings. But he accepts there are cultural barriers. He said: “As a sport we are missing on a group of players and it’s difficult to know how to break down the barriers, but I think it will happen eventually.”
The girls themselves are ambassadors for the sport and next year will be winging their way to Pakistan on another foreign tour. As Casey says: “Since I was little I have always wanted to be in a women’s super league. It’s started off small, but it’s turning into something proper now.”
They’re fiercely loyal to rugby league and aware of its historic connections to West Yorkshire. “We’ve all had offers to play union,” says player Ellie Oldroyd, “but we like league.”
Off the pitch the girls say they’re often described as “too girly” to be playing a rough, tough contact sport. But they see it as a stress buster. And, as Casey added: “It’s about the opportunities we have now as well.”
When the curtain rises on The Ruck on September 15 the entire team, as well as family and friends, will be in the audience. “We’re really looking forward to it,” says player Lily Clarke. And while they’ve all heard a reading of an earlier script, there are sure to be some surprises in store - just like in real life and on the pitch.
The Ruck (named after a term used in both rugby league and union), is directed by Joyce Branagh, who directed the Lawrence Batley Theatre’s first professional pantomime in 2016. It will make a short tour of Northern theatres after premiering at the LBT. Tickets for performances on September 15 and 16 in Huddersfield are £8 to £16 from theblt.org.uk or 01484 430528.