From The Vaults

27 March 2022
1991 pioneers, players, and perseverance: The first women’s Rugby World Cup

The inaugural women's Rugby World Cup took place in Wales over a two-week period in April, 1991. Twelve teams competed in venues around Cardiff in Wales, ultimately vying to take home an antique silver trophy. Many players were self-funded and had committed everything to this first opportunity to prove themselves on the international stage, with the USA eventually triumphing over England in the final on 16th April 1991, 19-6.

However, the 1991 women's Rugby World Cup was also about more than just the games. It placed women's rugby on the map. The media approached the tournament with a mixture of incredulity at the audacity of women to play rugby - let alone in a World Cup - while other journalists demonstrated genuine support for the new tournament. The first women's rugby world cup laid a foundation which has helped grow the game beyond recognition in just thirty years.

With origins in both the European Cup, which Great Britain was due to host in 1991, and an event called the Women's Rugby World Festival that New Zealand hosted in 1990, the first women's Rugby World Cup very quickly developed into a twelve-team competition thanks to the passion and dedication of a small group of volunteers, led by Deborah Griffin, Sue Dorrington, Alice Cooper and Mary Forsyth. All players at Richmond in London, the group worked tirelessly to make the necessary arrangements.

Sue Dorrington recalled "We actually launched with only eleven teams, as France had still not replied!". The organisers were often forced to think on their feet and change their best laid plans, and even their own team was reduced to two by the first kick off on 6th April with Mary Forsyth at home with her firstborn and Sue Dorrington playing hooker for England. Deborah Griffin acted as event manager whilst Alice Cooper dealt with the last-minute team changes for the programs and media enquiries. Perhaps one of the biggest upsets for the organisers came from the Russian team, who arrived with no funds to pay for their accommodation, transport, or food. Instead, the team brought vodka, caviar, and soviet souvenirs which they had hoped to barter in exchange for the necessary funds, which somewhat upset Revenue and Customs officers.

Of the twelve competing teams, the USA proved to be the physically dominant side, bulldozing their way to the final with "the locks from Hell" and the "turbo props" but England demonstrated greater technical ability, even going 6-0 up from a penalty try in the first half. However, once the USA got on the board thanks to a kick from Chris Harju, they proved unstoppable, winning 19-6.

Even with the games over, the organisers were left with significant issues, particularly regarding the financing of the tournament. The first women's Rugby World Cup had proved to be a financial loss, and Deborah Griffin and her team were personally liable for an enormous number of costs. Despite their best efforts, the tournament hadn't secured a title sponsor, and the costs run up by the Russian team quickly added to the mounting debt. The press even rumoured that the organisers would be forced to remortgage their houses to pay for it, but the president of the RFU quietly swept out a cheque book in a form of tacit support for the women's game.

The 1991 women's Rugby World Cup set the mold for future tournaments. The second installment in April 1994 equally relied upon volunteers and teams to pay their own way, but the perseverance of the women's rugby community to create an elite international competition encouraged the male-dominated governing bodies to organize the 1998 women's Rugby World Cup and increase their support for each subsequent tournament, the stories of which are now on display at the World Rugby Museum in the new exhibition 'The Rugby World Cup: In Her Own Words'.

About the Author - Dr Lydia Furse is an expert on the history of women's rugby union and recently completed her PhD from De Montfort University. She co-curated the special exhibition 'The Rugby World Cup: In Her Own Words' at the World Rugby Museum and her forthcoming book will cover the social and cultural history of women in rugby union between 1880 and 2016.