The First Women's Rugby Team
By Jackie Finlan, The Rugby Breakdown
When retracing the history of women’s rugby, no advance can be undermined. When a single match was played in secret or a tour forced to disband, those players who endured public ridicule were laying groundwork for future gains. Edinburgh 1962 is one of those gains and is the first official women’s rugby team. Its creation spurred more stability and acceptance in the rugby union world.
Rugby union was certainly played before 1962, but there are a lot of asterisks when reviewing early women’s rugby facts. In the 1880s, around the time when Emily Valentine stepped onto the pitch to represent Portora Royal School in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, there was a women’s team playing games in Scotland. However, the code - union? league? football? - is still in dispute. Many of these early-history accounts bring similar levels of uncertainty, but they do build context around the trials of women’s sport in the 19th and 20th centuries.
The Story Behind The First Women's Rugby Team
Women’s sports experienced a boom during World War I, and yet there was still hostility toward women in rugby, which kept games in the one-off status. But other versions of the sport started to enjoy some success. In 1917, France created the Fédération des Sociétés Féminines Sportives, and women began playing “barette,” which is 12-a-side touch rugby, during WWI. By 1920, there were women’s teams in Bordeaux, Lille and Paris, and they competed toward a national championship. Then, somewhat mysteriously, the vintage rugby competition disappeared in the 1930s.
Rugby league (versus union) started to sprout in New Zealand and Australia after the war. In 1921, tens of thousands of spectators attended a women’s rugby league match in Sydney, and a league was well on its way to forming.
There was public, media and administrative support, but it was another false start, as opponents of the women’s league cut off its resources. In New Zealand, league teams near Auckland and Christchurch popped up, and then a union team in Wellington also formed, but they, too, did not have staying power. There the sport idled, in one-off status, tours or charity matches. Media and men’s leagues also continued to push football (“soccer”) as the preferred sport for women. But after World World II, women’s rugby union was able to make some more tangible gains.
The university environment was the perfect breeding ground for change in the 1960s, and in 1962, the Edinburgh Amazons Women's Rugby Team came into being.
The crucial detail, of course, is that the rugby union team did not disappear. It met regularly, practiced and had its existence documented and verified (see Getty photos). Thus, the Scottish team retains the honor of being the first women’s rugby team.
The 1962 Edinburgh team inspired activity in the London universities, and by 1965, rugby union had leapt the English Channel into the French universities. When those Edinburgh students left university, a burgeoning adult game followed them. That said, an actual match against another women’s rugby union team was never verified, and so it isn’t until 1968 that the first game is recorded in Toulouse, France (more to come).
But again, the University of Edinburgh Amazons aren’t significant for the games they played, but the stake they planted in the ground. They are the first women’s rugby team and bring a mark of permanence that the women’s rugby timeline had been missing. Its existence stoked growth in the United Kingdom, then France, and then overseas in the U.S. and beyond.