This blog was written for Herstory Club, under their monthly theme of the history of women in sport.
When we think of rugby players, traditionally we think of big, tall, muscly (and hairy!) men, who run and bash into each other and then celebrate with a pint or two. You would never think of a female rugby player like that? Up until recently, you wouldn’t imagine women even playing rugby.
Women’s rugby dates back to the 1880s, with press reactions ranging from “amusement to expression of concern that women’s rugby was unladylike and dangerous for their delicate constitutions.” Men seem to forget that women give birth to a baby near enough the size of a rugby ball – they have the strength to play the game!
Credit to the formidable women who defied social conventions and continued to play rugby in the late 19th century. An England vs Scotland exhibition match of “lady footballers” was staged in Liverpool in 1881, with newspaper reports mentioning the scoring of goals following touchdowns. This wasn’t an official game but indicates the origins of women’s rugby have been going on for longer than is known. The first known female rugby player was Emily Valentine, who played for her school team at Portora Royal School in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland. She is recorded as scoring a try in a match in 1887.
On the other side of the world, a women’s touring rugby team was attempted in New Zealand in 1891. I was surprised to read that it was stopped due to “social unacceptance” and the team disbanded. To avoid public pressure on societal issues, women would still play the sport in secret. Jumping ahead 24 years to 1915 and the public outcry wasn’t so loud. The single and married ladies of the Combined Sports Bodies Committees played a match at Athletic Park, Wellington, with a second match – sponsored by the Oriental Club and Wellington Rugby Union- taking place the same month, with a female referee and the players wearing jerseys and short skirts.
Back in the UK the women were making history by holding the first official charity match between Cardiff Ladies and Newport Ladies at Cardiff Arms Park in 1917. Slowly but surely, women’s rugby was gaining momentum. During the 1920s, French women adopted a game similar to rugby called ‘barette’. It featured only 10 players and some restrictions on tackling, but it was a success! National championships followed and received support from male rugby players.
Despite attempts to get women’s rugby off the ground, it was still seen “as a preserve where boys could be boys away from the disapproving influence of women” (rolls eyes to back of head). The 1960s began to change this and bring hope for women’s rugby. Edinburgh University recorded the first ever rugby union team and the first women’s club match took place at Toulouse Femina Sports. Just like that the domino effect on women’s rugby began. Universities across Canada, the USA, the Netherlands, the USSR, Japan and Spain all established teams in the 1970s. Notably Canada and the Netherlands set up teams outside of universities in 1978.
The scene had been set. No longer were social conventions deploring women for playing rugby, the times had changed and the women’s rugby teams began to enter the international arena. In Christchurch, New Zealand, in 1990, the first international tournament was put together: RugbyFest. Many clubs participated, including the four big internationals, who played a round-robin tournament – USA, New Zealand, USSR and the Netherlands. The hosts were the winners and the prize was playing against a combined World XV. New Zealand won.
This was the perfect prequel to the first women’s Rugby World Cup in 1991, in Wales. Not sanctioned by the International Rugby Board like the men’s Rugby World Cup, no television contracts or sponsorships resulted in a financial loss. The Russian women’s team sold Russian dolls and vodka to pay their way and four England administrators re-mortgaged their houses to cover the expenses. After 15 matches, the US were crowned champions.
The introduction of the Five Nations came in 1999, making women’s rugby more equal to that of men’s. Due to hundreds of women not putting that egg-shaped ball down, women’s rugby finally received it’s recognition in the 21st century. From news articles, segments on Sky Sports, female Rugby 7s competitors in the 2016 Rio Olympics, to, more recently, the women’s Rugby World Cup receiving a primetime slot on ITV.
But women’s rugby still has a long way to go. Only in 2019 was England Women’s Rugby the first team – IN THE WORLD – to provide their players with full time, professional contracts. 2019. Let that sink in. Whilst some women still go unpaid during their games, this is a massive step to ensure female teams in the future get paid for the sport. They have come a long way from the 1880s and still have a long way to go.