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Pioneers of modern women's rugby

A couple of months ago we published an article about the first pioneers of women’s rugby – some of the people of tried to get the game going in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Today we are looking some of the people behind the formation of the modern game

Action from the first women's test match - Netherlands vs France - in 1982

We intended to quickly publish a follow-up for our first article about the more modern pioneers, but agreeing a list has proven to be quite a challenge.

There are great stories from many countries about pioneers of the game, such as Natasha Olsen from Brazil, who took the field first and without whom the game would perhaps not exist – but in the end only a few will have an impact beyond their borders

There was also a key period from the late 1960s to 1994 when the game often had to fight for its life against the established men’s game, with unions that sought to frustrate or even ban the development of the women’s game.

So what follows is a look at some of those pioneering heroes from that period who battled through adversity to organise the first national teams, arrange the first matches, and organise the first tournaments. People who defied bans or claims that it could not be done. Some of their stories are well known, some less so, but (especially in a year when no women were selected for rugby’s Hall of Fame) they all deserve recognition.

Women’s rugby would not be what it is today without them.

Henri Fléchon (France).

Henri Fléchon was arguably the single most important person behind the development of women’s rugby in not just France in the 70s and 80s, but Europe and probably beyond.

Before 1972 Henri was a French referee with no connection with the women’s game until the FFR tried to kill off the fledgling women’s game by banning referees from officiating in it. Henri would have none of it, the ban fell apart, and within three years he found himself as president of AFRF (the French women's union).

In that position he was behind the organisation of the first test match, having inspired the Dutch to develop their game. He also led negotiations to get women's rugby accepted by and eventually integrated into the FFR.  

Even more importantly he was central to the organisation of the first European Championship in 1988, although he died shortly before it was played. The trophy for that tournament was named after him, and success of the tournament - after countries outside Europe asked to take part in what was to have been the second tournament - led directly to the creation of the first World Cup.

Elissa Augello (USA)

While rugby was developing in France and western Europe, completely independently of it – but at almost exactly the same time – the first women’s rugby teams were being formed in the United States. The first competitive teams appeared in 1973 at four universities, including the University of Illinois where Elissa Augello had her first experience of the game

Elissa along with a handful of young women including Mary Larkin, Marcy Borge and Jennie Redner founded the Women's Committee in 1980 - the first governing body of US women's rugby.

While the US produced some exceptional players these administrative pioneers were absolutely critical to the growth of the US women's game - forming territorial representation, defying USAR and finding ways to work around the tremendous sexism that conspired to hold the women's game in check. The stories of what these young women did in the late 1970's and early 1980's (as well as others including Jami Jordan, Lee Chichester, and Kathi Morrison) to move the women's game forward are remarkable. It was through their leadership that the USA had its first club championships, its first collegiate championships, the WIVERN tour, the first women's national team and the first World Cup team.

Laurie O'Reilly (New Zealand)

Women’s rugby had been played in New Zealand for many years up to the 1980s, but without any real direction or development, and the women’s game was not recognised by the NZRU. At that time Laurie O’Reilly was a lawyer and coach of the Canterbury University men’s team and occasionally helped with the women’s team. But when his daughter wanted to play for the women’s team in 1985 he told her that “no daughter of mine will play in the front row without proper coaching”.

By 1989, with the game growing under his influence, he became coach selector of the first New Zealand women’s team, formed for the visit of team from the west coast of the USA, and it was his efforts that finally forced the NZRU to accept the women’s game.

Laurie’s influence went well beyond New Zealand. He contributed to coaching clinics in Samoa, Spain, Netherlands and Japan and an article his wrote about women’s rugby for the New Zealand Journal of Physical Education in 1994 had an impact around the world. He died in 1999. Test matches between New Zealand and Australia are played for the Laurie O’Reilly Cup.

Sue Dorrington, Deborah Griffin (England)

Griffin, Alice Cooper, Sue Dorrington and Mary Forsyth have their names assured in rugby history thanks to their heroic efforts in establishing and then running the 1991 World Cup – the first ever in the women’s game.

Having met through Richmond rugby club, the quartet led the charge to get the first World Cup up and running, even though it would not be officially sanctioned by the IRB, with support from many other dedicated volunteers and administrators to get the tournament off the ground.

With the 12 participating teams paying their own way to get to Cardiff where the tournament was being held thanks to the club’s offer to pay for the welcome ceremony and the closing ceremony, the whole event was held amid huge uncertainty, not least financial, and ended up making over £30,000 in losses, which was settled by the then RFU Secretary Dudley Wood. 

Dorrington combined her administrative role with playing for England – she played in the final against the USA – and the tournament would mark the catalyst for huge change that followed in the women’s game.

Within a few months, the Italian, Dutch and New Zealand unions all welcomed women’s rugby into their official fold, and by the end of 1992, of those teams taking part, only rugby in Wales, England and Japan was still organised by separate women’s unions.

The United States, who won the tournament were treated to a White House reception and a level of recognition and support that would see them to two more World Cup Finals.

The determined efforts of Griffin, Cooper, Dorrington and Forsyth put the international women’s game on the map

Sue Brodie (Scotland)

Sue Brodie’s rugby career saw her represent Scotland predominantly on the wing, but occasionally at full-back.  She will be best remembered, however, as the saviour of the 1994 Women’s Rugby World Championship. 

Following the IRB's failure to recognise the proposed Women's Rugby World Cup in Stichting, Holland, the Dutch organisers cancelled the tournament just months before the competition was due to start. News filtered out slowly to the participating nations, including Scotland where Brodie and her teammates had been working tirelessly with hope of representing their country in a world cup for the first time. Sue Brodie refused to accept that there would be no world cup in 1994, and proposed that Scotland host a replacement.

As there had been some public disagreement over the use of the term 'Rugby World Cup', Brodie gathered a group of determined Scottish rugby players, administrators, and advocates to organise over four short months the Women's Rugby World Championship, which took place in April 1994. The tournament remained illegitimate in the eyes of the IRB, preventing New Zealand from competing, but was a huge success for women's rugby in Scotland. Sue Brodie not only played in the  Women's Rugby World Championship 1994, she saved the whole tournament, which has retrospectively been officially recognised as the second women's rugby world cup.

It is not an exaggeration to suggest that if the 1994 tournament had not taken place, recognition by the IRB and the first official tournament in 1998 would have been, at best, delayed - perhaps for several years. 1994 also remains the only World Cup to officialy end with a financal surplus.

(With particular thanks to Kerri Heffernan and Lydia Furse)

Especially in a year when no women were selected for rugby’s Hall of Fame, these pioneers deserve recognition