Toulouse 1970 - The First Women's National Association
By Jackie Finlan, The Rugby Breakdown
By 1962, the modern game had its first women’s rugby union team in the University of Edinburgh. Collegiate teams followed in the U.K. and France, and in 1968, the first women’s rugby match (that was also documented) occurred in Toulouse, France. La Ville Rose responded so positively to that inaugural event that it’s no surprise to see “Toulouse 1970” as an important node on women’s rugby timeline. The southern French city became the headquarters for the first women’s rugby union governing body..
Why are national governing bodies important? For a foundling sport like women’s rugby, these organizations provide structure for growth and legitimacy. They manage rules, members, competitions. They keep records, communicate with other governing bodies, and ideally make thoughtful decisions on investment. They consolidate a voice for the sport and provide valuable recognition – a constant battle for women’s rugby.
The Fédération Française de Rugby (French Rugby Federation, FFR) is France’s national governing body, and it took 20 years for the organization to fully integrate women’s rugby. Thus, it was necessary for women’s rugby teams to form a stand-alone association that valued their existence. In 1970, a handful of French teams assembled and decided it was time to form the Association Francaise de Rugby Feminin(French Women’s Rugby Association, AFRF). The first official women’s rugby union governing body had formed and called Toulouse its home. The association became a vehicle for significant gains and inspiration around the world.
A year after AFRF formed, there were more than 300 women playing rugby and 22 teams competed in the inaugural French women’s championship in 1971. The Toulouse-based team (today known as Stade Toulousain) was a powerhouse, winning nine championships between 1975-85, a record among the French women’s rugby facts that started to accumulate with AFRF.
"We had to fight to be recognised because at the beginning it was not considered a sport for girls. We had no referee, we played in cow fields,” Monique Fraysse, a France XV captain, told World Rugby.
In 1972, Henri Fléchon joined AFRF and served as president. The Frenchman had been a rugby referee and was put off by the FFR’s ban on officiating women’s games. It was a blatant stunt to stifle the growth of the game, and so he joined the good fight. He continued conversations with the FFR, forever working toward official status with the national governing body, and also communicated with other European unions.
In the early 80s, the Netherlands were interested in learning how the French organized their domestic game, and as those conversations evolved, Fléchon and his French counterparts decided it was time for an international test between the two countries. The AFRF president was impressed that the Dutch outpaced the French in terms of formally recognizing and integrating women’s rugby to the national governing body. On June 13, 1982, France and the Netherlands played the first-ever international test match in Utrecht. The French won 4-0, or one try to zero.
The early 70s were important across the Atlantic as well. Canada started reporting women’s rugby in 1970, and in 1972, the U.S. had four universities playing rugby union: University of Colorado, Colorado State University, University of Illinois and University of Missouri. 2022 marks the 50th anniversary of those vintage rugby years, and the Women’s Rugby Coaches & Referees Association - a professional organization for the women’s rugby community - celebrated with the launch of its Women’s Rugby History Museum (check out dates for pop-up tour).
In 1980, pioneering young women created the first U.S. women’s rugby governing body: the Women’s Committee. Like their French counterparts, it was their organizational prowess that helped set up the U.S. game for growth, in spite of the roadblocks posed by its own national governing body. The founders, and many others, allowed for the first club and college championships, the WIVERN tour, women’s national team and world cup team.
The 80s saw more and more countries organize the women’s game more formally. Associations and competitions in Italy, U.K., Canada, Japan, Russia and more followed. Meanwhile, AFRF kept the energy from Toulouse 1970 alive, and the first women’s rugby union started to make gains with its national counterpart. In the early 80s, AFRF became the Fédération Française de Rugby Féminin (French Federation of Women's Rugby), and finally in 1989, women’s rugby was fully integrated into the FFR.