Rugby League: Sophie's choice is denied: A 10-year-old sporting talent can only dream of playing at Wembley because she happens to be a girl. Liz Kahn reports

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The Independent Online
SOPHIE COX is 10 years old. Next May, Sophie should have been savouring the greatest thrill of her life; walking through the famous tunnel to play rugby league at Wembley in front of a capacity crowd. That was until sex discrimination shattered her dream: the little sporting superstar is a pawn in a game of adult sexual chess.

Sophie captains a mixed rugby league school team, a mixed rugby union team, a mixed school football team. As a four-year rugby veteran in the 1991-92 season, she scored 67 tries. She also gave up ballet for judo and is a green belt. According to Sophie's mother, Cathie, one boy got the shock of his life when he went hurtling through the air, as Sophie mistakenly judo tackled him during a rugby game. Sophie is a shy young girl, but she is no wimp.

As the only girl selected for the Rochdale Town Under-11 schools' team this season, Sophie played twice and scored two tries in her first game. After two mixed rugby league games with Rochdale Town Under-11s this season, Sophie heard in October that the team would be going to Wembley to play in the curtain-raiser to the Rugby League Cup Final in May.

She then had her name put forward for possible selection for the North West Counties Schools' team, and it was then that her world fell apart as the North West Counties Schools Rugby League declared that girls could not play for its association or for the town's schools' team, as its constitution refers only to boys. As a result Sophie has not played rugby league for Rochdale Town since 3 October.

In an eloquent letter of protest to the Women's Sports Foundation, of which she has been a member since 1989, Sophie wrote: 'I was really thrilled when we were told the town team would be going to Wembley. Me at Wembley, a dream come true] Perhaps I'd score a try or make a brilliant tackle. I was determined to train hard every Wednesday to get a place on the team.

She continued: 'My dad had to give me the bad news. I can always tell when it's bad news, he takes me up to my bedroom for a quiet talk. I was really upset and I cried. The rules say games are for boys, now I can't play for the team and I can't play at Wembley. I think it's unfair, the rules are out of date, girls should have equal opportunities. Who is going to object if I do play?'

A good point. The North West Counties Schools Rugby League constitution may mention only boys, but it does not state that girls cannot play. Its constitution could be amended, positively at its annual meeting next June - of no help to Sophie - but allegedly when the question of girls participating was raised two years ago, it was voted down.

North West Counties referred the matter to the Rugby League in Leeds, promoters of the Cup Final and the curtain-raiser at Wembley. Both the teams due to play in May - Rochdale and Sheffield - are happy for Sophie to participate.

'We're not in a position to dictate the social and psychological effects of such a decision,' David Howes, the public affairs executive of the Rugby League, says. 'We are out of our depth and seeking advice from specialists in the development of children, finding out government policy regarding girls under 11.'

Mark Radsani, a spokesman for the Department of Education, which has not yet received the RL's letter, said that under the Education Reform Act government policy states that physical education is a compulsory area of activity for all pupils of 5 to 14. 'And rugby falls within that area,' he said.

'The government believes competitive team games such as rugby have an important part to play in the school curriculum and beyond,' Radsani added. No mention of sex. 'North West Counties have to defend their own position if they believe they have a case against Sophie's participation.'

Sophie is the second of four bright girls in the Cox family. Her father, Tony, looks after his daughters while their mother goes to work as an Inspector of Taxes: 'I'll have the children, but there's no way I'm staying at home with them,' says Cathie, who has been married for 21 years. Tony, a rugby coach and referee, a former teacher who felt he was in a rut, was quite happy to give up his job.

'I did it voluntarily, it was not forced on me,' Tony says. 'We completely reversed roles and I am Renaissance man. It has drawbacks and advantages but I'm quite happy and I write 'full time father' on all census forms.' Tony's wife describes him as 'a rampant feminist' whose daughter Sophie fulfils every ambition he would have for a son, 'but not in any unfortunate way',' she says.

In response to Sophie's letter, Sadie Dressekie, of the Women's Sports Foundation, said: 'North West Counties have given no valid reason for Sophie not to be included in the team. In terms of physical strength the fact she is a girl plays no part in the argument as the difference in size and strength in girls and boys does not appear until puberty. By making this stand, Sophie Cox will make the path easier for many young girls following in her footsteps.'

Sophie remains lucid and hopeful: 'I think it would be great if I could play at Wembley, other girls might think rugby league is a good game,' she says.

'Lots of people think girls shouldn't play rugby league even in a girls' team. Some of them might change their mind if they saw me play. Perhaps I might convince them that girls are exciting to watch.'

(Photograph omitted)