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Thursday, March 24, 2016

History of Women in Rugby

By NSCRO

Since this is Women’s History Month, we thought it fitting to include a little history about women’s rugby.

The start of the sport of rugby is a little ambiguous. It is widely claimed that in 1823, a young student in the UK named William Webb Ellis “founded” the game while playing football (or, as we call it in the US, soccer) when he decided to pick up the ball and run it through the goal.

The history of women in rugby is just as vague. The earliest record of women playing rugby occurred at Portora Royal School in Enniskillen, Ireland when Emily Valentine’s brothers formed the school’s first rugby team in 1884 of which she was a member and played her first game (and scored a try) in 1887. This made Emily Valentine the first official woman to play rugby.

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There is a record of women who attempted to form a women’s touring team in New Zealand in 1891 but was disbanded due to public pressure and social unacceptance. There are also some vague references to women playing rugby in France in 1903 and in England in 19131 primarily in secret due to societal issues and pressures. It isn’t until 16 December 1917 that documentation exists of women playing a charity match at Cardiff Arms Park between the Cardiff Ladies and the Newport Ladies, with Cardiff winning 6-0.2

There is some evidence that women’s rugby was played in France, Australia and New Zealand in the 1920s and 1930s3; until World War II when the role of women changed as they began to support the war effort. It wasn’t until the 1960s that the game of rugby began taking root starting the universities in Western Europe; and, in 1962, the first recorded women’s rugby union team appeared in Edinburgh University.4

In 1 May 1968, the first fully documented and recorded women’s club match took place in France at Toulouse Fémina Sports in front of “thousands of spectators”.5 This led to the formation of the first national association for women’s rugby union – the Association Francaise de Rugby Feminin (AFRF) at Toulouse in 1970.6 That spurred the formation of women rugby unions in Canada (1970), the US (1972), the Netherlands and Spain (1975) in various universities. The first non-university clubs were formed in 1978 in Canada and the Netherlands, and in Italy in 1979.7

The first Women's US National Championship was held in September 1978 in Chicago, IL. If was organized and hosted by the Chicago Women's RFC. (Interesting fact: NSCRO President, Stephen Cohen was the Head Referee at the even.) The first international tour took place in 1982 with London’s women’s team playing in France. On 13 June 1982, the first women’s international match was played between the Netherlands and France in Utrecht, Netherlands, with France winning 4-0. The following year, the game became formally organized, starting with the formation of the Women’s Rugby Football Union (WRFU) in the UK. In 1987, USA Rugby created the Women’s National Team (WNT).

In 1990, RugbyFest, a.k.a. World Rugby Festival for Women, was held in Christchurch, New Zealand. This was the first international tournament for women’s rugby which lasted two weeks. The WNT, known then as the USA Presidents 15, lost to New Zealand in the finals. RugbyFest became the starting point for the Women’s Rugby World Cup, which was held in 1991. (The Women’s Rugby League World Cup, on the other hand, was established in 2000 and currently Australia, France, England and New Zealand participate.)

Since the 1990s, rugby for women has grown significantly as more rugby union tournaments were being held and women’s rugby was given more publicity and center stage. Although 7s tend to be more popular, 15s have been gaining traction.

There you have it! A rich history spanning over 130 years that started from a school match in the UK to a sport that's played worldwide and acceptance into the 2016 Rio Olympics.

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