Connect with us

Fitness & Sports

The development of ladies rugby

Since its early beginnings in the mid-19th century, rugby has been predominantly male game. In the Victorian era, it was seen as unseemly for a woman to take part in such a game and until the later part of the 20th century it remained a male bastion. That is now changing.

The first recorded woman rugby player was Emily Valentine. She practised with her brothers’ school team, Portora Royal School in Enniskillen, and actually played for the team around 1887, even scoring a try. An apparent attempt to form an all-woman team, however, came to nought when a planned tour of New Zealand was called off in the face of public opposition.

In France around this time and up through the 1920s women are known to have played a game called barette. Very similar to rugby, it was played by teams of ten and there were some tackling restrictions.

As for ladies rugby proper, some charity games were played in Britain during the Great War and by around 1930 a women’s league was formed in New South Wales, Australia and lasted until the Second World War intervened. But it was not until the 1960s that the ladies game really began to take hold.

Coinciding with the beginnings of the women’s liberation movement, female students at universities in Britain and Europe began to take up the game. In 1962, team was formed at Edinburgh University with teams being formed in France shortly after. As the 1970s progressed, women at universities in Canada, the USA, the Netherlands and Spain were forming teams and by that time French women had their own national rugby association.

The strength of ladies rugby continued to grow during the 1980s with the establishment of a number of national associations and, in 1983, the Women’s International Rugby Board. The end of the decade saw the first truly international women’s rugby tournament, which was held in New Zealand in 1990.

The first women’s rugby world cup was held in Britain in 1991, timed to coincide with the men’s tournament. Run without International Rugby Board approval, the competitors even had to resort raising their own funds but the tournament proved a success nonetheless with the USA defeating England in the final.

There was still opposition to the women’s game. The IRB opposed the second world cup tournament, threatening sanctions against participants. The disruption and threats meant that only northern hemisphere teams took part. Again, England and the USA contested the final, this time England emerging as the victors.

The game went from strength to strength and a 1998 Women’s Rugby World Cup tournament went ahead, the first to be sanctioned by the IRB. The winners were the New Zealand Rugby Silver Ferns, which like their male counterparts, the All Blacks, have become a major force in the game. In fact they have won the world championship four times – in 1998, 2002, 2006 and 2010.

The Silver Ferns have also proved dominant in the Sevens version of the game. Sevens has been played internationally by the ladies since 1999 and will be included in the 2016 Olympic Games.

Although still a minority sport for women in most countries, ladies rugby is played in over eighty countries worldwide and continues to grow in popularity. It is played under the same laws as the men’s game and is breeding its own heroines and legends.

Eddard Blake