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Wiverns '85 - the tour that changed the game

Thirty years ago today a whirlwind hit women’s rugby in Britain (and, to a degree, France). Thirty-six Americans arrived for a two week rugby tour of England and France, and changed the game forever. Remembering the most important touring team in early history of women’s rugby - the Wiverns.

Thirty years ago women’s rugby in Britain and Europe was in its infancy. Then came a team playing rugby from a different planet (or at least a New World) – and everything changed. Remembering the most important touring team in early history of women’s rugby - the Wiverns.

Go back to 1985. Just thirty years ago, but in women’s rugby terms it’s a different age, a different era. International rugby had started on the Continent, but in Britain the Women’s Rugby Football Union – in theory governing the game in the whole island – was barely two years old.

Nine of the ten founder-members of the Union were student teams (the exception being Magor Maidens), but by 1985 a few more non-university clubs were being formed by graduates who wanted to keep playing. But, apart from a one-day festival (which began in 1984, when Magor had dominated proceedings), there was still no competitive rugby in the UK. No leagues, no cups and, needless to say, no national teams.

The quality of rugby on offer had been described in an article that had appeared in The Times the previous April as “equivalent to good schoolboy rugby” with players “not necessarily playing in the right positions for their physique” but instead “slotting into gaps in an existing team”.

And now into this enthusiastic, but very amateur, game from across the Atlantic came the Wiverns. They were not the first US team to visit the UK – Magor had hosted a team from North Carolina in the previous year (and even made a return visit) - but this was something else entirely.

It was Pat Foley, at the time coaching women’s rugby teams in the Chicago area, who had the idea of getting together the best players for a tour. After he raised the idea with those he knew the idea snowballed, spreading quickly and enthusiastically through the American rugby community, with just about everyone wanting to be involved. Despite the players having to pay their own way, Foley had no problem finding the players and in the end Foley had more than in enough for a very competitive 36-player squad:

Carolyn Alley (“BB”); Suzi Arnsdorff; Margo Bausch; Ruth Bernick; Vicki Bowlin; Connie Bridi; Cynthia Bystrak; Barbara Cavoto; Anita Coleman; Kath Edsall; Mindy Fener; Kathy Flores; Frances Gilbert; Chris Harju; Kerri Heffernan; Sheila Hill; Mary Holmes; Connie Jakubcin; Karen Keith; Kathy Kojm; Mickey McVann; Laura Michalek; Mary Money; Carmen Morrison; Joan Morrissey; Karen Onufry (“KO”); Candi Orsini; Patti Purcell; Lisa Riahl; Jan Rutkowski; Brenda Schumacher; Nancy Thorley; Pat Standley Laura Walker; Jackie Watts; Morgan Whitehead.
Plus Patrick Foley (Organizer, selector, coach) and Darilyn Million (Manager)

The next problem was what the team would be called. They did not have the support of the US Rugby Union, whose only contribution was withhold the name “Eagles”, or even “United States”. In the end Foley came up with the name “Women's International Vagabonds, Emissaries, and Rugby Nomads”, which resulted in a convenient acronym - “Wiverns”.

What they would meet in Europe they did not know, though they were travelling to the “home of rugby”. However thanks particularly to Title IX, Women’s rugby in the United States was roughly a decade ahead of where the British game was in 1985. Inter-university rugby had been expanding since the Universities of Colorado, Colorado State, Illinois and Missouri launched rugby programmes in the early 1970s, and were benefiting from quality coaching and funding (another effect of Title IX). By 1985 the USA had over ten times as many teams and players as Britain or France, and a national club championship had been in place for over five years. As a result the Americans arrived to find that they were older and significantly more experienced than almost all of the teams they would meet.

Foley arranged three matches in England (against Yorkshire Select, Midlands Select, and the South of England), leading up to participation in the second club festival (at Shenley)and them moving onto France for two more games (against club teams Chilly Mazarin and Soisy). All that in just two weeks, from 17th-30th November.

Players who took part in the tour have many memories, and one of Kerri Heffernan’s comes from very early in the tour:

“Our first day of practice - I believe was at Loughborough University [looking at the tour programme it was probably York] - we were walking out to the pitch in our rugby gear and passed a men’s field hockey team walking in from practice. We both stared at the other incredulously (men do no play field hockey in the US).”

If this suggests that the University hockey team had not seen a women’s rugby team go to practice then that would probably be unfair. However, if a New York Times report on the tour can be believed, perhaps not entirely. As it said, perhaps a little politely, “The British teams generally take a more leisurely attitude towards the game.”

In fact it was not just the university hockey team who taken aback by the visitors. Emma Mitchell (then a 19 year-old second-year history student at Loughborough) remembers:

“The Wivern side had been lifting weights in the Loughborough gym and some of the men’s 1st XV had been surprised at how much the Americans were lifting (some were even embarrassed to see the women lifting far more than them!). My Loughborough teammates Liza Burgess and Amanda Bennett took in three or four billets and I remember them being shocked when one of players, a flanker called Kathy Flores [Kathy insists it was actually Kerri Heffernan], asked for a 10-mile training run route around Loughborough for a recovery run the day after the game. They were also a little aghast to come home from lectures and realise that the Americans had had the gas heating on all day (we used to limit heating to an hour in the evening in those student days!).”

So, apart from problems adapting to the typically unheated UK university student accommodation of the period, the highly competitive club structure in the US had created players who not only tended to be far fitter than their British counterparts, but also had a very different attitude. At a festival at the end of the UK leg of the tour (about which more later) the New York Times was again struck by the difference between the visitors and their hosts. “Many of the British women talked to their friends between matches,” their correspondent noted, “while others sipped a beer or two in the nearby cafeteria.” An unidentified young player is also quoted as saying, “[The Wiverns] are marvellous athletes… but they take the game a bit seriously for my tastes.”

And so to the games themselves. The tour kicked off in York against what most agree was a “Yorkshire Select XV” on 17th November with the visitors cruising to an 11-try 44-0 win (four points for a try in 1985). Eight players made it to the scoresheet, with Cynthia Bystrak, Jan Rutkowski and Carolyn “BB” Alley getting two each. None of the tries were converted (very few were at the start of the tour, but even that improved significantly by its end).

Three days later the team arrived in Loughborough – and, although there was only a three day gap between games, the size of the squad allowed a totally different XV to be fielded. Emma Mitchell picks up the story:

“I started playing rugby in October 1985. Along with my twin sister, Jane, Chris Gurney and Claire Willietts, the four of us (who had all played fresher’s Hockey together the previous year) decided to give rugby a go. We’d been training for about a month when the Wivern squad arrived at Loughborough.

“As was the case with so many early tours, we put the Wivern squad of 30+ up in our student houses and small halls of residence rooms. It was my second month of rugby and my first encounter with an international side.

“A big crowd turned out to watch the game on the Towers pitch, partly due to the Wivern’s prowess in the Loughborough gym. I remember a couple of memories very clearly. The side that played the Wiverns at Loughborough on 20th November was called Midlands (although it included Swansea!) with players from Loughborough, Keele, Warwick, Swansea and Leicester Polytechnic. We didn’t have a coach or time for trials, re-selection, so it was decided that we’d split places across the five teams for equal representation. I remember being disappointed not to have been selected and then feeling rather relieved and slightly concerned for my twin Jane (who was selected at flanker) as I watched the display of dominance from the side line. We lost 44-0 [just 10 tries this time, Candi Orsini, Carmen Morrison and Suzi Arnsdorff each scoring two – and Kathy Kojm kicking the first goals of the tour] .

“Did the Wivern side take us by surprise? I think, at that time, all we wanted was to play and learn and we were simply excited to have another team to play against and we knew the Americans were going to be very good as most had been playing for 5-10 years already. They were certainly not underestimated and the programme claimed it was USA v Midlands.

“The game in the UK in 1985 was at it early beginnings. There were just a handful of clubs and university sides and a few hundred players at most. Most of the women who played had transferred from other sports (Hockey, Athletics, Netball) and all were inspired by the wonderful team sport that rugby is. We were still learning basic rugby skills, set piece formation and plays and had (at best) a naïve appreciation of tactics. We were coached by some of the men’s players and had a few more months before Jim Greenwood was persuaded to come and take a look at us and see if he might be able to help.

“Which particular players stood out? Well, Wivern players such as Candy Orsini, Kathy Flores, Morgan Whithead and Chris Harju were already great players and six years down the road were opposing finalists at the 1991 Rugby World Cup in Cardiff when the USA beat England. Kathy Flores became a lifelong friend and, as you know along with Candi Orsini went onto coach the USA from 2002-2010. A number of the Wivern side returned the billeting favour when Saracens toured California in 1993. I moved to California in 2003 and Kathy Flores was my Head Coach at Berkeley All Blues for my last year of rugby, 19 years later. After my own rugby retirement in 2004, I was lucky enough to be offered my first coaching position as Kathy Flores’ Assistant Coach with the Berkeley All Blues in California.

“Who stood out for the Midlands side? Amanda Bennett, Lisa Burgess, Kiki Lee and Sam Robson all went on to play the first GB match against France in 1986; Lisa and Amanda went on to play for Wales (Lisa as Captain) and Sam for England, playing in that 1991 World Cup Final. My twin sister, Jane Mitchell found that her best position was not at flanker but at full-back and she played there in the 1991 and 1994 World Cup finals and scoring a try in England’s win in 1994. I was selected on the bench behind England Suzy Hill in 1987 and went on to win my first cap in 1987, playing in four World Cups and retiring in 2002.

 “Also, an interesting follow on and a reflection of just how young the game was at that time, all four of us (myself, Jane, Chris Gurney and Claire Willietts) who had just agreed to go together and give rugby a go in October 1986 went on to play for England and GB within 2 years.”

By now the tour was getting noticed, and The Observer sent reporter Geoffrey Nicolson to the next game, just two days later against the South of England, at Wasps. This was to prove to be a significantly closer match than those that had gone before – even the closest of the tour - though for 11 of the party it was their second game in a week, and for six the second on just two days. The final score was just 20-0, with Kerri Heffernan, Kathy Flores, Ruth Bernick, Karen Keith and Chris Harju getting the tries.

However it is a sign of the times that Geoffrey Nicolson, in his half-page article, largely ignored the game and concentrated rather more the fact that women were playing at all – the headline (“Rugger dolls no pushovers”) gives a flavour of the text that followed, though South captain Tricia Moore did get to briefly talk about her opponents – “That was the hardest game I’ve ever played,” she was quoted as saying, “but at least we were holding them at the end” (all the while, apparently, “tugging off her lock’s headband and with it several strands of auburn hair”).

Tomorrow the Wiverns, after just two day’s rest, arrive in Shenley for the second annual national festival – before travelling on to France. Tales of big wins, beer, wine, Thanksgiving in Paris, and a look back at the importance of the tour.

“The British teams generally take a more leisurely attitude towards the game.”

New York Times, November 1985