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International Women’s Day: The growth of women’s rugby

International Women’s Day: The growth of women’s rugby

This year will mark the 40th anniversary of the first official international women’s rugby union match and when we look back in four decades 2022 may also stand out as a landmark year for the women’s game.

Over the course of the next eight months the stars of women’s rugby will compete in a XVs World Cup, a Sevens World Cup, the Commonwealth Games and, of course, the TikTok Women’s Six Nations.

The 2022 Championship was already set to be a breakthrough edition with the introduction of the first Super Saturday and unprecedented broadcast coverage.

The fact that global entertainment platform TikTok have come on board as the title sponsor will bring even more momentum to the Women’s Championship, allowing an even greater audience of new and old, to engage and witness the inspiring and game-changing heroes of the women’s game, perform at the highest level.

All this progress comes from the commitment of Six Nations Rugby Ltd to invest and support the women’s game, including looking to create a pathway from women’s rugby at Under-18s level.

So on International Women’s Day, in what will be a watershed year for the sport, what better time to look back on the growth of the women’s game.

HUMBLE BEGINNINGS

The glamour and reach of the 2022 TikTok Women’s Six Nations is all a far cry from France’s 4-0 win over the Netherlands back in 1982 in Utrecht in the first recorded international match.

While that was a watershed moment, the women’s game dates back much further with reports of matches as early as the 1880s, a century earlier.

Emily Valentine holds the distinction of being the first officially recorded female rugby player. The schoolgirl from Enniskillen in Northern Ireland played in a team formed by her brothers at Portora Royal School, with Valentine’s memoirs recording her playing as early as 1887.

Her story was discovered by John Birch, whose research has been vital in helping spread knowledge of women’s rugby. He has worked closely with Ali Donnelly, the founder of the website Scrumqueens, one of the most valuable resources for fans of the women’s game.

INFLUENCE OF THE WAR

Little is known of the women’s game at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th, but the advent of the First World War proved to be a turning point.

With men heading off to fight for their countries, women filled the void in huge numbers in the workplace and with that change in social dynamic came the women’s rights movement in the UK.

Women were also able to play sport more regularly and the earliest image of the women’s game comes from a match in 1917 between Cardiff and Newport in Wales.

Maria Eley, one of the pioneers of the sport who lived to the age of 106, played full-back for Cardiff that day.

Eley said of her experience: “We loved it. It was such fun with all of us together on the pitch, but we had to stop when the men came back from the war, which was a shame. Such great fun we had.”

UNIVERSITY PLATFORM

As Eley mentions, the end of the war appeared to slow the progress of the women’s game, and it was not until the 1960s that it truly established itself.

Universities and colleges proved to be the perfect environment for teams to be founded, with Edinburgh University seemingly the first in the UK in 1962.

Across the Channel in France, university teams were also being set up, with the first national association for women’s rugby union set up in France in 1970.

The sport was not restricted to the traditional strongholds of the men’s game, with women’s rugby notably popular in the Netherlands and the USA, where the game has gone from strength to strength since the early 1970s.

DEVELOPMENT OF THE INTERNATIONAL GAME

In fact, it was in Utrecht in the Netherlands, that the first international match was played, France emerging victorious 4-0 in 1982.

Scrumqueens Data Hub is an incredible archive of every recorded international that has been played since that first encounter 40 years ago.

After a European Championships competition in 1988 and RugbyFest, an invitational tournament in New Zealand in 1990, the first World Cup was played in 1991, the USA emerging victorious after beating hosts England in the final.

That World Cup, and the one that followed in 1994 were not officially sanctioned at the time, although were later retrospectively acknowledged by World Rugby.

A home nations tournament that would eventually evolve into the TikTok Women’s Six Nations that we know today began in 1996.

GROWTH IN ENGLAND

England won that first home nations championship and have been the dominant force in the game in the northern hemisphere over the 25 years since.

Some of the first female rugby superstars played for the side over that time. Maggie Alphonsi and Danielle Waterman, who are now familiar faces as broadcasters on both the men’s and women’s game, were both part of the England team that won seven consecutive titles including six Grand Slams from 2006 to 2012.

Back-rower Alphonsi was then part of the England side that won the World Cup in 2014 and has become an inspiration for players up and down the country since.

Last year, England hopeful Zainab Alema, an NHS intensive care neonatal nurse who founded the rugby charity Studs in the Mud, got to meet Alphonsi and explained just how big an influence she has had on the women’s game.

BURGESS BREAKING DOWN BARRIERS

These days it is Alphonsi who is inspiring the next generation of rugby players, but it was a Welsh great who played a big part in Alphonsi’s own development.

Liza Burgess, known as ‘Bird’ by her teammates, is arguably Wales’ greatest-ever player with a career that spanned three decades.

She captained Wales in their first international against England in 1987 and won the last of her 87 caps 20 years later, as well adding six appearances for Great Britain to her tally prior to the Welsh team being formed.

In 1989 she was one of the founding members of the Saracens Women and she later led them to the first women’s treble – league, cup and national sevens titles – during a 10 year stint at the club.

Away from her rugby career, she worked as a teacher and at the end of the 1980s, it was she who convinced one of her pupils in London to give rugby a try. Alphonsi was that pupil and it seems fitting that the pair are both now part of World Rugby’s Hall of Fame.

A new group of Wales trailblaizers have since come to the fore, with current captain Siwan Lillicrap among 12 players who received full-time contracts for the first time from the Welsh Rugby Union at the beginning of 2022.

IRELAND’S EMERGENCE

For much of the 2000s, England were dominant with France as their main challengers but the early 2010s brought a new force to the women’s game in the shape of Ireland.

Their team featured a host of players who have gone on to have a huge influence on the women’s game. Fly-half Lynne Cantwell is now the women’s high performance manager for South African rugby, No.8 Joy Neville has been a trailblazer as an official while team captain Fiona Coghlan regularly appears as an analyst on both the men’s and women’s games on Irish TV and radio.

Joy Neville

Neville has emerged as one of the most respected female referees in rugby and broke down barriers by becoming the first woman to officiate in a professional European rugby match. She was also the first woman to referee a top-level men’s rugby union match in the UK, taking charge of Ulster v Southern Kings in the PRO14. In 2017 she was recognised for her achievements by being named World Rugby’s Referee of the Year.

Coghlan, Neville and Cantwell starred for Ireland in 2013 as they won a maiden Championship, , with the team repeating the feat two years later, having beaten New Zealand in between – to become the first Irish national team to do so.

WORLD RECORDS IN FRANCE

Between 2013 and 2016, Ireland and France alternated titles, and the latter have built on that to sit currently as England’s closest challengers on the world stage.

While the Red Roses have had the edge in recent contests, they almost always go down to the wire with some of the most memorable encounters in the women’s game in the last five years having been between the pair.

Perhaps the most entertaining of all came in Grenoble in 2018 in front of a world record crowd of 17,440 spectators – since beaten by the 29,581 who watched on at Twickenham as the Barbarians beat South Africa XV last year.

Jessy Trémoulière, later voted World Rugby’s Women’s Player of the Decade, scored the second of her two tries at the death in a dramatic 18-17 success for Les Bleues who went on to win their fifth Grand Slam in the process.

The women’s game in France has only grown since then with huge crowds pouring in to watch the team – as they appear at venues around the country – who have finished in the top two in the Championship nine times in the last 11 years.

BARATTIN INTO THE RECORD BOOKS

One of the rare occasions where they did not manage that was in 2019, a year in which Italy underlined their status as a force in women’s rugby.

Le Azzurre came second that year, producing one of their greatest ever performances in beating Les Bleues 31-12 in their final match, a bonus-point success that was enough to clinch the runners-up spot, their best finish to date.

In Sara Barattin, their scrum-half and long-time skipper, they have an icon of Italian rugby.

Sara Barattin Italy 100 caps

Last year Barattin became the first Italian woman ever to win 100 caps, doing so during the qualifying tournament for this year’s Rugby World Cup as Italy secured their place at the global showpiece event.

And while one of her remaining ambitions in the sport is to be part of the side in New Zealand, Barattin has also admitted that she loves rugby too much to stop, even as she enters her late 30s.

SCOTTISH RENAISSANCE

That Rugby World Cup qualifying event saw Scotland claim a dramatic last-gasp win over Ireland in the final match, clinching their place in the final repechage tournament.

The Scots, coached by Bryan Easson, faced a final against Colombia to secure the last spot for the tournament in New Zealand. They booked it in style with a 59-3 victory at the end of February to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 2010.

And after a six-year run during the mid-2010s where Scotland finished last in the Championship every year, it was more proof of the renaissance of the game north of the border.

That RWC qualification had also been preceded by dramatic draw with France in the 2020 Championship, with Rachel Shankland’s late try and the conversion by Helen Nelson, securing a memorable 13-13 draw for the Scots.

LOOKING TO 2022

There is so much reason for excitement at the way the sport has developed over the past 40 years and what 2022 can bring.

The pandemic saw the 2020 Championship interrupted and curtailed but also allowed 2021 to break new ground as it moved into a window of its own.

England players celebrate with the trophy

That trial run was a resounding success, albeit in a reduced format, but 2022 will now see the return of the TikTok Women’s Six Nations as a full-schedule, 15-game event..

The move should only help the Championship go from strength to strength, while allowing women’s rugby to take another huge step forwards.

The TikTok Women’s Six Nations kicks off on 26th March, when Scotland host England, Ireland welcome Wales and France play Italy on Sunday 27th March.