Women’s rugby has long been overshadowed by the men’s game but things are finally changing – and changing at a pace. In fact, the women’s game has taken the sports world by storm in recent years, culminating in the epic Rugby World Cup final between England and New Zealand in 2021.
However, while women’s rugby is finally getting the recognition and following it deserves, the sport also had a difficult history. Here’s how women’s rugby began and how it’s continuing to evolve.
The first women’s rugby games
While the earliest origins of women’s rugby are vague, the sport has been traced back to the 1880s. This includes 1881 when two women’s teams competed in north England and Scotland, with matches that resulted in riots. Three years later, the first school women’s rugby team was formed at Portora Royal School in Enniskillen, Ireland, in 1884.
In 1891, the first purely women’s team was formed and attempted a tour of New Zealand. Again, this attempt was met with public outrage and the tour was subsequently cancelled. As a result, women played the sport in secret for the next two decades.
It wasn’t until the First World War that women’s rugby was contested in public. This included charity games like the 1917 match between Cardiff Ladies and Newport Ladies. However, it took another four decades for the sport finally put down roots. This occurred during the 1960s when Edinburgh University formed the first record women’s team in history.
Women’s rugby on the international stage
Fast forward two decades and the first women’s first international rugby match was held in 1982. Organised to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Dutch Rugby Union, the game was contested by the Netherlands and France in Utrecht on 13 June 1982, when the French side made history by winning 4-0.
This first international match led to the widespread acceptance of women’s rugby and the sport has continued to grow and evolve. This led to the creation of the Women’s Rugby World Cup and the first edition of this quadrennial tournament took place in 1991. Then came the Women’s Five Nations which was founded eight years later in 1999.
The evolution of women’s rugby
The next big development came in 2016 when Rugby Sevens was added to the Summer Olympic Games. This provided a huge platform for the sport and led to a surge in popularity. As such, the game has exploded in recent years with more publicity, televised games and rugby fixtures that have attracted huge crowds.
The 2021 Rugby World Cup saw some of the biggest crowds to date. This included the final between England and New Zealand which was watched by almost 43,000 spectators at Eden Park. As a result, female rugby players have become some of the most recognisable figures in the sporting world, with rugby giants like Portia Woodman, Emily Scarratt and Sarah Hunter.
With women’s rugby continuing to evolve and more women being encouraged to get involved with the sport, there’s no telling just how big women’s rugby could become.