England players must turn professional if they are to close the gap to New Zealand and Australia, says outgoing head coach Craig Richards.
The host nation’s hopes of reaching a first World Cup final ended in a 20-6 loss by the Kiwi Ferns in York.
“I don’t see what more they could have done other than lay off and train unemployed people,” said Richards, who said he would not continue in that role.
“I have girls who go to the gym at five in the morning before work.”
Unlike the Australian runners-up and the majority of New Zealand players who play in the NRL’s all-professional women’s competition, the England squad is made up of part-time players, many of whom have to book time off for participate in the tournament.
“I spent five years trying to close the gap. It’s not good enough,” added a clearly emotional Richards.
“What more do you want from these girls?” These girls [the New Zealand players] are professionals, so the question is whether you want to compete with them or not?
“I hope that’s how it goes. On the back of payment then it’s about behaviors. So the players who get that have to recognize what it is to be professional and embrace it.
“Money should be a bonus, but there should be a change in attitude. During the pandemic, girls would meet and sprint through the parks in pairs; they would do push-ups in the back gardens with bags weighted back.
“When I got the job and someone sent me the videos from the last World Cup [in 2017 where England were beaten 52-4 by New Zealand], I thought, ‘Wow, what did I do?’ One of the tasks was simply to get closer.
“It will be someone else who takes the team forward. This decision was made a while ago. It won’t be me, so I will support from afar.”
Leeds Rhinos are currently the only Super League club to announce they will reward bonuses and “meritocratic payments for success in the Challenge Cup and Grand Final competitions” to their players from 2023.
Leeds, who won the Women’s Super League grand final in September, said this was the next step in their decision to make their women’s team fully professional. However, Richards says others will have to follow.
“I think sometimes the competition [Super League] doesn’t help because all the talent is in two or three sides. More work needs to be done to strengthen all the other parts that are lagging. Until you get that, you’ll be hard pressed to catch these guys,” he added.
“I hope we have inspired the next generation”
Captain Emily Rudge and striker Jodie Cunningham were two of four survivors of England’s last side to play a World Cup on home soil nine years ago.
And while the two have spoken positively about the evolution of the domestic game, they also believe the next steps must be taken to help inspire a new generation of stars.
“The pathways are there and progress is being made,” Cunningham said.
“It’s been huge since the last World Cup, but for us it’s all about getting more girls to play and I hope we’ve inspired a lot of girls to get into the sport.
“We talk about it a lot, but these girls need to start getting paid. We need more time together.
“For us to be in camp for two weeks as full-time professionals has been amazing and to be able to take the next step before the next World Cup would be great.”
Rudge added: “It’s been an incredible home World Cup for us. We really wanted to go beyond the semi-finals.
“Hopefully we’ve inspired the next generation and those young girls watching in the crowd.”