Rugby League: Sophie to have her Wembley wish: Dave Hadfield reports on the 11-year-old girl who has won her fight to make an appearance on her sport's big day

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The Independent Online
AN 11-year-old girl will change the face of the schoolboys' curtain-raiser to the rugby league Challenge Cup final at Wembley forever this May.

Sophie Cox has been cleared by the English Schools Rugby League to play for Rochdale against Sheffield in the traditional prelude to the sport's big game of the season, despite a previous ruling from the North-West Schools Rugby League that she could not take part because its constitution referred only to boys.

'The constitution was never anti-girl,' Ray Unsworth, the secretary of the ESRL, said. 'It's just that, at the time it was framed, nobody had considered the possibility of girls playing.'

The ESRL now says that not only can Sophie play this year if she is selected, but that it will also discuss changing its own constitution at its annual meeting in June to allow other girls to follow in her footsteps.

'There was some resistance,' Unsworth said. 'But this is a step for the future and it can't just be regarded as a one-off.'

The news has been greeted with delight in the Cox household. 'Sophie is quite a strong girl emotionally, but I have never seen her as upset as she was when she was told she couldn't play,' her father, Tony, said. 'Now it is just the opposite extreme.'

Sophie's temporary exclusion, first revealed in the Independent last month, has not stopped her training with the town under-11s squad. She will now play in two trial matches this week, but there seems little doubt about her ability to win a place in the side for Wembley.

'Being a girl in a man's world means you have to be that bit better,' Tony said. 'A few people brought up in Wigan and Widnes 30 years ago might find it strange, but they've never seen her play.'

The ESRL has satisfied itself that there is no physiological reason why 11-year-old girls cannot compete against boys of the same age. Sophie's parents and family doctor will be asked for confirmation of that view.

The schoolboys' match has been part of the Wembley programme since 1975 and has given future internationals like Joe Lydon and Phil Clarke their first appearances in front of big crowds. The presence this year of Sophie, who has also impressed in judo and rugby union, gives the opportunity for a public relations coup which will emphasise the fact that girls' and womens' rugby league is one of the growth areas of the game.

'We have female physios, female club secretaries and have had a female club chairman,' David Howes, the League's public affairs executive, said. 'We are delighted that the feminine touch will now extend to another aspect of the game. Our only concern was that the schools authorities should get advice on the medical aspects, and their view is that mixed rugby up to 11 is fine.'