Tomorrow it will be 25 years since the first Women’s Rugby World Cup kicked off in Cardiff. Over the next few days we will be looking back on a turning point in the women’s game with interviews with players, press reports and other celebrations, but today we look back at where the game was a quarter of a century ago.
Scrumqueens last dipped into the history of women’s rugby back in November when we looked back 30 years to the US Wiverns tour to the UK and France in 1985. The game, in Europe at least, was in its infancy then and the Americans legendarily bulldozed everything that came in their path.
What that tour brought, when the dust settled, was a realisation that the game could be played differently. European rugby had seen a glimpse of the future and was determined to catch up.
Support from the existing structures of the game remained minimal to non-existent, but despite that in 1988 - less than three years after that tour – the French women organised the first European Championship, in Bourg-en-Bresse, featuring teams from Great Britain, France, Italy and Netherlands. France narrowly defeated Great Britain 8-6 to take the title in a tournament that was seen as such a success that a repeat was soon being planned for England in 1991, playing alongside the men’s World Cup.
With the IRB still showing little interest in the women’s game, these four countries – plus Belgium and Spain – also began to set up their own governing body – the Women’s International Rugby Board. Events quickly took a life of their own. Within a year the USA and Canada asked if they could take part as well. It was now a World Cup.
In the meanwhile Richmond RFC – then the English champions – visited New Zealand in 1989, and appear to have had similar effect on the Land of the Long White Cloud as the Wiverns had had on England, returning with nine wins from nine games (including wins over two provincial teams) and a points scoring record of 258 for and just 41 against.
A sleeping giant was now prodded into activity. The New Zealand women (who were still not accepted as part of the NZRU), had been awoken from their slumber, and quickly organised their own “mini World Cup” in August 1990 in Canterbury.
A huge and highly ambitious event, RugbyFest ’90 remains to this day (remarkably) the only international women’s rugby XVs tournament ever to take place in New Zealand, and with little or no involvment or support from the NZRU (the NZRU only recognised the games as "women's tests" 20 years later). As well as a raft of club teams (and not just from New Zealand), five international sides – New Zealand, Netherlands, USSR, United States and Japan – were due to take part, though Japan withdrew shortly before it started, taking part in only the club section. There were close, exciting games, the USSR and New Zealand made their test debuts (against each other), and New Zealand even beat the much-fancied USA in the final game – as well as a “World XV” made up of the three other squads the following day.
The New Zealanders – glorying in the nickname of the “Gal Blacks” (no "Black Ferns" until 1998) – now put in their request to join the party, which had now been moved to Wales as the Welsh local authorities and Sports Council had proven far more supportive than those in England. With Sweden and the USSR also confirming, the day of the draw arrived on 20th February 1991 with 11 teams in the hat, and a potentially complex tournament ahead. Fortunately, with the names practically being drawn, at last possible moment France added their entry. And so 12 teams would play in south Wales in April 1991 (the draw is in the photo above).
The rest, as they say, is history – and we will be telling that here over the next few days.