The First Women's Rugby World Cup
By Jackie Finlan, The Rugby Breakdown
The 1988 Women’s European Cup and 1990 RugbyFest built momentum for international women’s rugby tournaments, and primed the community for the first women’s Rugby World Cup in April 1991. Twelve teams traveled to Cardiff, Wales, to size each other up, name a champion, and assert that women’s rugby has worldwide staying power.
The 1991 World Cup is a success because it happened at all, and the accolades belong to a four-woman organizing committee that created the tournament structure from scratch and managed every element of the event. Richmond WRFC (Eng.) players Deborah Griffin, Alice Cooper, Sue Dorrington and Mary Forsyth brought the first World Cup to life, even as the International Rugby Board (IRB), the sport’s governing body, withheld its approval. (The IRB, or World Rugby today, withheld its blessing until 2009.)
Financial support, as always, was a major concern, so the group, led by committee chair Griffin, hired an agency to secure sponsorships. The company landed in-kind trades, but ultimately no title sponsor emerged, and all debt became the personal responsibility of the organizing committee - including the £30,000 fee from the sponsor agent. Imagine the stress!
The committee found some relief in Cardiff as a host city, which offered a lot of support and paid for the welcome ceremony and closing dinner. Meanwhile, participating teams had their own hurdles to clear. Only half of the field was fully integrated into their home countries’ national governing bodies, which meant the pay-to-play model was in full effect and the full power of the rugby-playing world was not supporting this event. Even the eventual champions, USA, were in Europe without the endorsement of USA Rugby and relied on the Women’s Committee to make this historical trip happen.
If there was any silver lining, it’s that independent status helped certain teams circumvent their home union’s interference. The New Zealand Rugby Union, for example, did not recognize the 1991 Women’s Rugby World Cup, but since women’s rugby was not yet under the NZRU umbrella, the Black Ferns ignored NZRU’s disdain and attended anyhow.
And good thing, because New Zealand’s haka against Canada in the April 6 tournament opener is one of the more charming women’s rugby facts that surround the tournament.
On the ground, the organizing committee whittled down to two, as Dorrington was called up to play hooker for England, and Forsythe had her first child.
Day-of tournament duties fell to Griffin and Cooper, who were essentially on-call for eight days straight. Cooper was in charge of media, and in those vintage rugby days, technological restraints meant game-day programs were produced the night before to reflect roster changes and the most updated information.
Arguably the biggest surprise came from the Russians, who arrived with no hard currency and only vodka, caviar and other paraphernalia with which to barter for travel, accommodation and meal expenses.
Customs halted that activity, and while the local community got involved with donations, the Russians still racked up a £6,000 debt, which again, fell on the organizing committee.
But the effort was worth it, and 12 teams - Canada, England, France, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, New Zealand, Soviet Union, Spain, Sweden, USA, Wales - made it to Cardiff, Wales for the April 1991 tournament. Teams were divided into four pools of three, and pool games were played on April 6, 8 and 10. The four pool winners - England, France, New Zealand and USA - advanced to the Cup semifinals on April 12.
Meanwhile, the remaining eight teams filtered into the Plate, or 5th place, competition. The quarterfinals, semifinals and final had to be completed between April 11-13, and so eventual victor Canada beat Russia 38-0, Italy 6-0 and Spain 19-4 on consecutive days for 5th place. Five games in eight days - a big ask! Today, the women's Rugby World Cup occurs across 36 days.
The Cup competition had a recovery day built in, and on April 12, England defeated France 13-0 in the semifinals, and the USA avenged its RugbyFest loss to New Zealand with a 7-0 win. Close to 3,000 spectators attended the April 14 championship in Cardiff, and England supporters had the first opportunity to cheer as the Europeans took a 6-0 lead against the USA. Chris Harju put the Americans on the board with a penalty kick to go into the half down 6-3. But the second half belonged to the USA and tries through Claire Godwin (2) and Patty Connell sealed a 19-6 victory and first-ever trophy. [full results below]
“Speaking in the broader sense, I felt like we were on our way,” USA captain Barb Bond told WorldRugby.com. “Like this wasn’t going to be the last World Cup, it was only the first.”
Months after the first Women’s Rugby World Cup, Italy, Netherlands and New Zealand officially added women’s rugby to their unions, and there have been gains with each of the nine tournaments (the ninth being the RWC 2021, played in 2022).
Today, there is much more fanfare, media coverage, recognition and respect for women’s rugby and its quadrennial 15s tournament, but there is that constant tension of appreciating progress and striving for fairness. After the 1991 tournament, at the closing dinner, businessmen anonymously donated funds and RFU secretary Dudley Wood covered the organizing committee’s remaining debt.
Today, financial resources for players and investment in the women’s game remain big to-do items, and the spirit that the 1991 tournament ignited lives on in those efforts toward equity.
1991 WOMEN’S RUGBY WORLD CUP
APRIL 6-14, 1991 @ CARDIFF, WALES
New Zealand 24-8 Canada
New Zealand 24-6 Wales
Wales 9-9 Canada
France 62-0 Japan
France 37-0 Sweden
Sweden 20-0 Japan
USA 7-0 Netherlands
USA 46-0 Soviet Union
Netherlands 28-0 Soviet Union
England 12-0 Spain
England 25-9 Italy
Spain 13-7 Italy
Canada 38-0 Soviet Union
Italy 18-0 Sweden
Netherlands 6-3 Wales
Spain 30-0 Japan
Canada 6-0 Italy
Spain 8-0 Netherlands
Canada 19-4 Spain
England 13-0 France
USA 7-0 New Zealand
USA 19-6 England