From The Vaults

21 March 2022
Lost and Found: The History of the Original Women’s Rugby World Cup

Of all the meticulous planning that went into the organisation of the first women's Rugby World Cup in 1991, the trophy itself was something of an afterthought.

'We wanted something nice, but not expensive', said Sue Dorrington, one of four women most credited with bringing the tournament into existence.

So it was that in early Spring 1991, Sue found herself in Hatton Garden, the London street synonymous with silversmiths.

'I wanted something different, something that could be associated with women's rugby', she said and, though she can no longer recall which shops she visited, she found it.

The original women's Rugby World Cup trophy cost a princely sum of £500. A closer look at the silver hallmarks explain that the trophy was produced by Birmingham based silversmiths Adie Brothers in 1924. One of its most distinctive features is the organic, Art-Nouveau-style openwork pattern around the rim. This gives it a delicate, almost lace-like quality that may have seemed somehow more feminine when Sue selected it.

Whilst aesthetically beautiful, a practical drawback of the design was discovered when, having won it, both the USA and England were unable to drink out of it as the champagne kept escaping through the gaps.

It was first awarded, later that year, to triumphant USA captain Mary Sullivan who, at the age of 39, became the first player to lift the women's Rugby World Cup trophy. Three years later England defeated USA in the final at Raeburn Place, Edinburgh and it was Karen Almond's turn to lift the trophy for the Red Roses.

Engraved on the front of the trophy are the words 'Women's Rugby World Cup' and on the rear, the names of the two nations to have lifted it, USA in 1991 and England in 1994. And there it ended. The 1994 competition had almost been cancelled when the International Rugby Board (IRB, now World Rugby) had refused to sanction the tournament. Instead of Amsterdam, it went ahead in Scotland as a 'World Championship'.

By 1998 things had changed and the IRB had taken over the stewardship of the tournament. One of numerous innovations introduced was a new trophy, the one that teams play for to this day. And so, the original trophy was retired. At first the IRB didn't recognise the first two editions of the tournament. That changed in 2009, when World Rugby formally acknowledged their legitimacy and, by extension, the pioneering work of all those who contributed to them.

As for the original trophy, since England had been the last team to claim it, it remained with the Rugby Football Union for Women (RFUW), who put it to good use as a star exhibit in several nationwide roadshows designed to grow the game around the United Kingdom.

Their efforts were successful, and women's rugby quickly became one of the fastest growing sports around, as it remains today. A stranger fate was to befall the original trophy, however. From 2008, we (World Rugby Museum) began to receive occasional enquiries as to its whereabouts. Although never a part of the museum's collection, the trophy had been displayed in the museum several times and records showed that it was taken on the road in 2006 and never returned.

The trail went cold. From time to time, former players such as Gill Burns implored the rugby world to 'find the Rugby World Cup!' but no one ever did, and concerns began to grow for its safekeeping. This remarkable situation lasted for fully 15 years until, against all expectations, an administrator who had worked on the roadshows came across a small wooden box tucked away in her parents' attic.

Charitably, the same parents had helped tidy a few bits and pieces away after one of the events and the box had ended up in their loft. They had no idea what was inside and to make matters worse, they had lost the key.

Once found, the trophy was returned to Twickenham by Gill Burns, by way of Bisham Abbey National Sports Centre, where it was introduced to the current Red Roses squad. It was then deposited with staff here at the museum, who spent several days trying to work out how to pick an elaborate Venetian lock and free it from its wooden, glass-fronted case.

Eventually we succeeded and once free, it was cleaned and made ready for display. It is now available for public view as the centre piece of the newly launched special exhibition 'The Rugby World Cup: In Her Own Words'.

Thereafter it will be on display permanently in our Rugby World Cup gallery.