By the 1960s there was a suggestion that rugby was a sport for women that should be pursued
From fits and starts to the first World Cup – women’s rugby union’s development to 1991
In 1932, former Rugby Football Union (RFU) President, Percy Royds told the diamond jubilee dinner of Ealing RFC: “Ours is a game not founded for women. It seems to me to be the only game today in which women cannot compete – thank goodness.”
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We know that rugby did not exactly thrive in its early years and the situation continued like that for the next sixty years, until the 1980s when the women’s rugby world finally started to get organised. How much the rugby establishment would allow it to organise itself before then is up for debate but essentially there were only sporadic attempts to form teams and leagues up until this point with varying success.
In Sydney in 1921, two women’s teams played a game of rugby league in front of a crowd of 30,000.
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It wasn’t just rugby union, either. In Sydney in 1921, two women’s teams played a game of rugby league in front of a crowd of 30,000. However, for unknown reasons, they were never allowed to play again.
A game called barette was played in France during the 1920s – a variation of rugby played with ten to a team. It was very popular throughout the decade with a national championship in place, but it seemed to disappear in the 1930s.
Meanwhile, in the southern hemisphere the first Australian league appeared in 1931 in New South Wales. This kept going until the outbreak of World War II but it took some time after the war for Australia to start playing again. Women were also playing the game in New Zealand around this time and the teams included Maori players. However, in the South Pacific the game did not catch on; indeed it was banned for women in Samoa until the 1960s.
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In 1953, three rugby league matches were played in the north of England to commemorate the accession to the throne of Queen Elizabeth II. They were supported seriously by the fans and wider community, but, like so much of women’s sport, were treated with scorn by the press.
The popularity of the women’s rugby league in north-west England even led to the qualification of some female coaches at schools in the 1960s, including Winnie Powell at Wakefield St Austin School, Kay Ibbetson at East Hull and Betty Haile at Whitehaven.
By the 1960s in Europe there was a suggestion that perhaps women’s rugby union was something to be pursued. In 1962, Edinburgh University fielded the first recorded women’s team. The next year the game had spread to universities in London and by 1965 it had crossed the channel to the universities of France.
On May 1st 1968, the first recorded club match took place in France
Once the women had graduated from university they wanted to continue playing and so other clubs started to be formed, but there is little documentary evidence of games at this point.
On May 1st 1968, the first recorded club match took place in France at Toulouse Fémina Sports in front of what was reported to be “thousands of spectators”. The first national association, also in France, the Association Francaise de Rugby Feminin (AFRF) was formed in 1970.
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By the 1970s, the sport had made its way to the universities of the United States and Canada. Ironically, it was easier for the women’s game to take off here as the men’s game was not well developed and so the prejudice was not there. It started in Missouri, Illinois and Colorado and in 1978 the first national championship was played in Chicago.
In Canada by the mid-70s there were clubs in Alberta and Saskatchewan and the first international between USA and Canada took place in 1987.
Back in Europe by 1975 the Netherlands had started playing and a league of ten teams had been formed by the start of the next decade. Spain and Italy then followed.
The first women’s international match was played on June 13,1982 between The Netherlands and France in Utrecht, with the visitors France winning 4-0.
In Great Britain, progress in the sport was slower. The Women’s Rugby Football Union (WRFU) was formed in 1983 and comprised the clubs of Imperial College, Leeds University. Leicester Polytechnic and Loughborough University, Magor Maidens, Sheffield University, University College London, University of Keele, Warwick University and York University. By 1990, this had expanded to 90 member clubs.
Subsequently, the game took off far and wide with new national associations appearing every year, including Italy in 1984, Japan in 1988, The Netherlands in 1991, New Zealand in 1992 and Australia in 1993. But if you’re wondering why there’s no mention of South Africa, it would be another ten years before the sport developed on the African continent.
The first international tournament, Rugbyfest, took place in Christchurch, New Zealand in 1990.
The participants were a strange mixture of club sides and four national teams: United States, New Zealand, USSR and The Netherlands. New Zealand were the winners and, although it was an unpromising format, it did pave the way for the first World Cup, which was held in Wales just a year later in 1991.
Although it did not have official International Rugby Board (IRB) approval, the first World Cup did attract entrants from 12 countries: Wales, England, France, The Netherlands, Sweden, Spain, Italy, USSR, Japan, USA, Canada and New Zealand. There was little backing from the men’s game and precious little media coverage, but the tournament was adjudged a success with the first winners being USA, who beat England 19-6 in the final.
From then on it was all-systems go for women’s rugby union, although it was not all in the 15-player format, which is a recent addition to the women’s game.
In the third part of this series, we examine the rise of the phenomenon that is rugby sevens.