What may surprise is not that women play rugby, but that they have done so since the 19th century, albeit with little publicity and not much encouragement. The secretive nature of the early years of women’s sport — and especially rugby union — ensures its historical obscurity.
We do know that the (mainly male) public reaction to women playing contact sports was often contemptuous, sometimes even violent. In 1881, when teams played a number of exhibition “football” games in Scotland and northern England, they had to be abandoned due to rioting in or around the grounds.
There were early reports of women’s rugby union being played in France in 1903 and England in 1913, but in both cases the games were played behind closed doors.
However, in December 1917 during World War One at a well-documented charity game at Cardiff Arms Park the Cardiff Ladies beat the Newport Ladies 6–0. A certain Maria Eley played fullback for Cardiff that day, and went on to become probably the oldest women’s rugby player, dying in Cardiff in 2007 at the age of 106. The Cardiff XV all worked for the local brewery William Hancock (possibly inspired by Frank Hancock, a company director who had played for Wales). Interestingly they all wore protective headgear, some decades before it became popular with male rugby players.
“Rugger for girls”
Another advocate for women’s rugby was Colonel Philip Trevor who had five daughters of his own. He had served in the Anglo-Boer War, and during the Great War was Assistant Director of Ordnance Services in London. He had written books on cricket and was the rugby correspondent of the Daily Telegraph. In his book, Rugby Union Football, published in 1923, he opens with the chapter “The Game’s Popularity – Rugger for Girls”.
His daughters, who by this time were teenagers and intent on enjoying themselves and flouting conventional standards of behaviour, suggested a family conference in 1913. The end result being that they and a bunch of friends trooped off to a secluded beach for a game of rugger, 15-a-side with more players available if the need arose. Colonel Trevor who acted as referee marvelled at the skills of the girls and described how they improvised with kit, by wearing bathing hats to lessen the chance of being “tackled” by the hair.
From these beginnings, women’s rugby gained popularity in the 1970s and the first women’s rugby international match was played in Hilversum, Holland in 1982 where the home side were defeated 4–0 by France.
From the 1980s, women’s rugby became officially organised and recognised with founder clubs from the universities. Changing attitudes had by the 1990s made the RFU recognise the English WRFU game and they finally amalgamated in 2012.
The women’s game has gone from strength to strength in recent decades, and twelve nations will compete for the seventh women’s World Cup in France later this year.