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From the sidelines to the spotlight: The evolution of women's rugby

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Riots, fights, touchdowns and a mysterious cigarette card: the origin of women’s rugby has an interesting genesis. 

First, of course, comes the myth of rugby itself. Legend has it that in 1823, during a football match at Rugby School in Warwickshire, William Webb Ellis picked up the ball and ran with it, creating the foundation for a new sport: rugby football. Fast forward a few years, and the divide between football and rugby was codified, and so starts the future of the sport. 

Or at least, the future for men. 

In 1881, several games of what appeared to be rugby (“touchdowns” are mentioned in newspapers from the time) were played by women up and down the country. Genuine riots and fights ensued, primarily because of public outcry at female players. One game on Shawfield Ground (now the Stadium) in Glasgow had a large-scale pitch invasion, including a last-minute escape from the players. 

In 1887, we had the first know record of rugby (as we would know it today) being played by a woman or girl. Emily Valentine, whose brothers headed up the school’s rugby team at Portora Royal School in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, often trained with the team. Then, in a match later that year, she scored what could well be the first ever try scored by a woman. 

Over the decades, despite the prevailing societal norms and gender expectations of the time, women did continue to play rugby – albeit in limited and informal settings. In 1891, an exclusively female team was due to tour New Zealand, for example, but this was cancelled due to public outrage. 

A smattering of games were recorded here on in: some charity matches during the First World War; some games of rugby league in Australia (also met with an instant ban and uproar from local authorities), and eventually a small league solely for women’s rugby – sadly halted by war, this time the Second World War. 

19th-century illustration of a woman playing rugby

An era of recognition

It wasn’t until the mid-20th century – over a century after the game was first played by men – that women’s rugby began to take shape as an organised sport. The game spread throughout universities, from the UK to France and, in time, North America. As rugby-playing women began to graduate, the sport took hold as a de facto sport for women, culminating in the first official and fully-documented club match in 1968, at Toulouse Fémina Sports. The event was watched by thousands and it left an indelible mark on the sport; only two years later, the very first women’s rugby union was formed in the same city. 

In 1983, the Women's Rugby Football Union (WRFU) was established in the UK as perhaps the boldest step in the history of the sport so far. As the WRFU laid the groundwork for women's rugby in the UK, similar movements were underway across the globe.  

In Italy, the formation of the Lega Nazionale Rugby Feminile (LNRF) in 1984 echoed the spirit of progress, as did the first UK National League and Cup competitions in 1986. By 1987, the Canadian Rugby Union amended its bylaws to include a Vice President for Women's Rugby, signalling a shift towards inclusivity. Meanwhile, the birth of the Japanese Women's Rugby Football Union and the establishment of the Women's International Rugby Board (WIRB) in 1988 underscored this momentum behind women's rugby. 

The dawn of the 1990s saw the inaugural RugbyFest in Christchurch, New Zealand, setting the stage for the first Women's Rugby World Cup the following year, one of the most important events of the whole story. The World Cup, then not officially sanctioned by the prevailing authority at the time, the International Rugby Board, had to go on with minimal budget. The organisation was chaotic, including an entry from France just minutes before the draw. In its own off-kilter way, the event was a success.  

Despite obstacles, women's rugby continued to flourish: the inclusion of women's rugby sevens in the Olympics; the women’s Six Nations being formally adopted by the men’s Six Nations; record five-figure attendances across Europe, and in 2019, World Rugby officially removing sex and gender from World Cup naming conventions finally cementing the primacy of women’s rugby at the highest level. 

Progress has of course been made: women’s rugby becomes bigger every year. But all is not done. 

Significant investment is required to maintain the momentum of women’s rugby. The Rugby Football Union (RFU) outlined a £7m injection to the game ahead of the 2025 Rugby World Cup in England. This level of recognition, respect and passion, will help carry the game to the level it deserves. Funds are regularly being made available to the women’s game, and as time goes on, this should multiply as more and more spectators and fans follow the sport. 

So, what does the future of women’s rugby look like?

Howden is proud to be not only a Principal Partner of the first British & Irish Lions Women’s team, but also the Series Title Partner for the inaugural tour. The Howden British & Irish Lions Women’s Series will be a genuine landmark event; the women in the three tests against the formidable Black Ferns will be playing in the annals of history.  

We’re proud to support the game at both international and grassroots levels. The path has been difficult for women’s rugby, so we’re proud to play a small part in giving every supporter, every woman and girl, and every player of the sport a Lion to look up to.  

But rest assured, the history of riots at the very thought of a woman playing are thankfully far behind. This tour is for every girl that was told rugby is a man’s game. This is for the passion of every woman and girl that struggled to find a match, a club or a chance to play. This is for them and for every rugby fan around the globe. 

We can’t wait for the Series in New Zealand, and we can’t wait to see the next generations of rugby players flourish.  

The cigarette card at the top of this article? Made in 1895, although historians aren’t sure whether it’s a depiction of an early women’s rugby game, or simply something so amusing it would make for a funny cartoon. Not any more.