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From troubled beginnings to 1000 Tests - Women's Rugby continues to grow

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James Mortimer     09 Jul 2013     Getty Images

Indeed, when rugby originally submitted a proposal for Olympic inclusion, there was little real focus on rugby for the girls, a time when many women's unions were still independent operators from the national rugby bodies, and mainstream exposure was still lacking for the women's game.

In doing this, rugby made the mistake of not following one of the Olympic creeds.

‘The Olympics is about unity of all people, from all countries, of all ages and of all genders to have the right to compete on sport’s highest stages’.

However rugby's growing profile of women's rugby is progressing at a rate few could have ever imagined.

Rugby did prove itself to be a quick learner, and realised a stringent focus on Women’s Rugby was going to be the defining point of a bid to be included into the biggest sporting event on the planet, and in 2016 the dream will be realised as both men’s and women’s teams will line up to compete for Olympic Gold.

It will be a triumphant for return for Rugby whose last taste of the Summer Olympics was in Paris of 1924, although technically it is a debut event, as the 1900, 1908, 1920 and 1924 Games were of the fifteens variety.

For the women’s game, it is a long way from the 13 June, 1982, where the Dutch city of Utrecht hosted what is recognised as the first women’s international, with the Netherlands losing to France 0-4.

Sevens, thanks to the recently concluded IRB World Seven Series – featuring the inaugural year of Women’s competition – and the Rugby Sevens World Cup, has dominated the headlines of late.

But attention now turns to the fifteens game, where the World Champion Black Ferns will take on England in a three-Test series, in a sense a mini-World Cup due to the fact that only England have managed to consistently compete with the New Zealand Women.

Eight times the Black Ferns have lost.

Seven times England have beaten them.

However even England’s balance of power has been corroded however as the game grows, proven in decisive fashion this year when a powerful Irish Women’s team took the Six Nations Grand Slam, the first time in eight years a nation outside of the Red Rose had claimed glory.

England’s prominent role on the Women’s stage is due to the fact that it was on the grounds throughout the country, as well as Ireland and Scotland, saw young ladies take up the rugby ball although early reports and facts are distorted due to the almost complete lack of coverage the game received.

From English schoolgirls playing in the rugby fields at night, to collector cards featuring none other than girls playing rugby - if anything the fairer gender playing the game was more an urban myth.

Some might argue that the first recognised Women’s Rugby player was Emily Valentine, whose brothers William and John played at the Portora Rugby Club, part of the famous Irish institution Portora Royal School, with young Emily scoring a try in 1884, although one suspects she was playing alongside her older siblings.

Other matches played around this era either received no coverage, were called off during play due to rioting around the ground, or in some cases, such as the attempts to send a Women’s team to New Zealand in 1891, were cancelled outright due to public outcry that females would play in such a “brutal sport” as recorded by some of the more colourful papers circulating those days.

Perhaps the first example of a well-publicised rugby match came in 1917, when a charity game was organised at Cardiff Arms Park between Cardiff Ladies and Newport Ladies (the latter winning 6-0) to raise funds for the War Charities.

Ironically, due to the fact that the bulk of the fit male population was involved in the First World War, this match received considerable attention due to the exploits of Welsh legend Maria Eley, who played at fullback for the hosts.

Eley passed away in 2007 aged 106, still a chair for the Cogan Senior Citizens Rugby Club and it had been informally reported that she had hung up her boots in her sixties.

Throughout the following decades between the First and Second World War Women’s Rugby continued to struggle for attention, be it from media or from actual descriptions of what sort of game was being played.

Some games were believed to still feature the old Association Football rules, others played a style of league, while in France Women were playing a version of rugby known as ‘Barette’, a 10-person version of the game which faded from histories consciousness.

The French were notable for forming the first national association for Women’s rugby - the Association Francaise de Rugby Feminin in Toulouse during 1970.

Driven by universities across the globe, growth began to accelerate, headlined by the amalgamation of Women’s Unions into the managing national bodies or the creation of independent initiatives to further grow the game.

In 1984 Italy created the LNRF (Lega Nazionale Rugby Feminile) to govern Women’s Rugby while in Canada their administrative bylaws were amended in 1987 to allow a female Vice-President on Canada Rugby’s board of directors.

Throughout this time Women’s competition grew across New Zealand, and in the years to follow notable individuals, including Test rugby’s most capped female referee in Nicky Inwood, would work hard to establish teams and competitions throughout the country.

In 1990 one of the landmark events in the Women’s game happened in Christchurch, in what wasn’t recognised as an official sanctioned tournament, but ‘RugbyFest’ saw a host of club teams and four ‘national’ teams, with the final seeing a New Zealand team beat a ‘World XV combination’ to win the competition.

Thanks to the efforts of RugbyFest, opportunity was there for a fully international Women’s competition to take place in Wales in 1991 to operate alongside the Men’s Rugby World Cup, but the tournament organisers did not seek official status, so while the tournament went ahead, it was essentially organised from the pockets of those who attended.

Two years later in 1992 the New Zealand Rugby Union took all forms of Women’s rugby under its administrative umbrella.

In 1994 the Netherlands, recognised as one of the pioneers of Women’s Rugby, having played 110 of the 999 Tests played in history so far, were award the second Women’s Rugby World Cup, but against the tournament was not given official status by the IRB, and eventually the Dutch withdrew from hosting the tournament.

This led to Scotland coming to the party to save and organise the event with less than three months to do it, and while it was essentially a Northern Hemisphere only World Cup with all Southern nations withdrawing, it was another significant act to move the Women’s game forward.

Meanwhile in the North nations eventually moved away from the Women’s Rugby Football Union (one body to oversee all four female Home Unions), with Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales all created independent Women’s Unions, which would in time be merged with their male counterparts.

In New Zealand some history was made in 1998 when the Black Ferns received their formal moniker, replacing the ‘Gal Ferns’ that had been in place previously. That same year the first officially IRB sanctioned Women’s Rugby World Cup was held, with New Zealand beating the United States 44-12.

Since then the Black Ferns have won the last four Women’s Rugby Cups, and have competed in the most WRWC events overall, only missing the 1994 edition in Scotland.

The following year the Women’s Five Nations began, and the game has gone from strength to strength.

Spain was included in the Five Nations in 2000 (replaced by Italy in 2007 when the Men’s Six Nations adopted the female tournament), the same year the South African Rugby Union affiliated with their Women’s counterparts.

Two years later the New Zealand versus England Women rivalry would continue to grow, with the two teams meeting in the 2002 Women’s Rugby World Cup Final, and the two subsequent competitions have seen the same two nations compete for the trophy.

Scotland’s Donna Kennedy in 2007 became the first Women’s player to register 100 Test caps (a mark since passed by Louise Rickard of Wales).

The following two years for Women’s Rugby would be huge, with the inaugural Women’s Rugby World Cup Sevens integrated into the Men’s competition for the first time, history would be created by Wales who would defeat England for the first time in the history of their 22-years of rivalry, while a record number of countries bid to host the 2014 Women’s Rugby World Cup.

Notably the IRB included 1991 and 1994 ‘unofficial’ World Cups on their list of previous tournaments in the official bid documents, the first time the governing body had done this.

In 2010, the Black Ferns and England Women’s team did battle in the most recent World Cup Final, with the13-10 score line not only being the closest final result in history, but a world record crowd of 13,253 attended Twickenham Stoop, the largest recorded attendance of a female rugby international.

This weekend the rivalry continues while a colourful history grows, as the top two teams in women’s rugby go head to head over three Tests.