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Women’s Rugby

History of Women’s Rugby

Early Days

The history of men’s Rugby dates back to the mid-19th century and it is noted that the first written code of rules was adopted in 1845 at Rugby School. The sport became increasingly popular throughout the United Kingdom in the 1850’s and 1860’s with the first ever official match in 1857 between Edinburgh Academicals and Edinburgh University.

The earliest recorded appearance of a woman in a rugby match was in 1887 at Portora Royal School.  Emily Valentine scored a try on the school rugby team which her brothers created a few years prior.

A few years later in 1891 women in New Zealand put forth the effort to create a touring team, however due to lack of support, the team was disbanded. In 1895, a woman appeared on a sporting cigarette card playing what appears to be rugby giving a bid of support that women were at least participating on an exhibition level at that time.

Pre-War Global Expansion

Although it is possible that women played rugby in England and France in the early 20th century, the first documented case of women playing rugby was late 1917 during a charity event.  More clear evidence exists that women’s rugby started to take root in Australia, New Zealand, and France in between the two World Wars. In fact, in 1921 two women’s team played a match in Sydney, Australia in front of a reported 30,000 spectators.

Interesting variations of the game were played in France in the 1920 called “barette”, which had only slight differences in format of play, such as the number of players per team and methods of tackling.  About the time that the game faded away in the 1930’s, a women’s league was formed in Australia and New South Wales. This ran nearly a decade before World War II ended play.

Modern Day Women’s Rugby

It wasn’t until nearly 30 years later that the first completely recorded and documented women’s rugby match took place in France on May 1, 1968.  This accelerated the formation of leagues throughout the world, starting in North America with Canada (1970) and United States (1972), on to the Netherlands and Spain in the middle 1970’s and Italy in 1979.  The first Women’s US National Championship took place in 1978, the Women’s Rugby Football Union in the UK started in 1983 and the first USA National Team was formed in 1987. Starting in the 1990’s the game has expanded significantly with the onset of the Women’s Rugby World Cup in 1991.

Leagues and Teams

There are several women’s leagues throughout the world, including the Women’s rugby league, Australian Women’s Rugby League, RFL Women’s Rugby League (England), New Zealand Rugby League, and the Women’s Premier League (WPL).

Women’s Premier Rugby League

The WPL was formed in 2009 in collaboration between the USA Rugby National Team staff and players. The league consists of the best women’s rugby players and highest level of competition in the United States. There are ten teams in the league with five in each of the Eastern and Western Conferences.  After completing an eight-game regular season, the battle for the WPL National Championship takes place in a tournament-style format.

Berkeley All Blues

Breaking down the teams of the Women’s Premier League, we examine the Berkeley All Blues, who play in the San Francisco area. They were formed in 1978 and have won 16 National Championships, including the 2011 and 2012 WPL titles, along with the 2013 Women’s Club 7 National Championship. Being one of the top teams annually, the All Blues routinely send numerous players to the Women’s National Team.

Atlanta Harlequins

The Atlanta Harlequins were founded in 1984 and consisted of players in the southeastern part of the United Sates.  Many came from major universities such as Florida State and University of Georgia. Displaying consistently stellar play in USA Rugby Division I, the team became a member of the WPL in 2013.

Beantown Rugby Football Club

In existence for 44 years, the Beantown Rugby Football Club nearly instantly became a leading women’s rugby team in the country. In fact, they have finished in the fop five in the National Championship every year since 1980, winning six times.  Beantown was also one of the founding members of the league. After two years out of the league in 2014 and 2015, Beantown was part of the league expansion in 2017.

Chicago North Shore

Chicago North Shore has been in existence since 1995 under Division II coach Bryn Chivers. One of the more consistent teams in Division I rugby, Chicago was one of the expansion teams to the league in 2017.

Glendale Merlins

The Glendale Merlins are a relatively new team, formed just 13 years ago but made quick impacts on the sport, finishing runner-up in Division I.  Joining the WPL in 2012, they have two titles and two second-place finishes.

Life West Gladiatrix

An infant in the world of women’s rugby, the Life West Gladiatrix were formed in 2016. Despite a young team, they have done extremely well, winning three straight National Championships. They are a new team to the WPL this season.

New York Rugby Club

The New York Rugby Club has won the WPL twice, in 2009 and 2010. They were founded in 1997 and have appeared in 10 USA Rugby Division I Club Championship Tournaments.  Due to their significance accomplishments, they were one of the founding members of the WPL.

Oregon Sports Union Jesters

Oregon Sports Union Jesters joined the WPL in 2014 after many years of dominance in Division I. In fact, they now have two teams, one in the WPL and one in Division II.

San Diego Surfers

The only women’s rugby club in the San Diego area, the San Diego Surfers have been around for 45 years, officially known as their current name since 1997. They have been a member of the WPL since 2010.

Twin Cities Amazons

The final team in the WPL is the Twin Cities Amazons, which is practice with Division II players and the WPL all year. Starting in the early 1980’s, the Amazons remain active with their community and are well-rounded passionate athletes that represent themselves well in the league.

Women’s Rugby World Cup

The Women’s Rugby World Cup is the number one international competition in the world. The United States won the first competition in 1991.  The the second was held only three years later to avoid competition with the men’s World Cup. The Women’s World Cup was held every four years from 1994 through 2014. 

The last World Cup, which took place in Ireland in 2017, went away from the four-year cycle, which now has been restarted so as not to coincide with the Olympics. The first time the event was recognized by the International Rugby Football Board was the 1998 World Cup held in the Netherlands.

In 2006, the format of the event saw 12 team split into four pools of three teams each. The placement of the teams after three games saw top ranked teams facing off in a knockout round. The following World Cup in 2010 had regional qualifying as opposed to a board-based selection of teams according to their international win-loss record.

Past Winners

New Zealand far and away has been the most successful, winning the event five times (1998, 2002, 2006, 2010, 2017). England is a two-time winner and five-time runner up, while the United States has their lone victory in 1991 a two-time runner up. France has been very competitive as well, finishing third six times.

The 2021 Women’s Rugby World Cup

Australia, Canada, England, Fiji, France, Ireland, New Zealand, South Africa, and USA have all qualified so far for 2021. The current world rankings have New Zealand on top, followed by England, Canada, France, Australia, USA, Italy, Wales, Spain, and Ireland. The New Zealand Women’s rugby team, also known as the Black Ferns, have the chance in 2021 to become the first nation to win on home soil.

Top Players in Women’s Rugby

There have been many great women’s rugby player. Here’s a list of a few.

Maggie Alphonsi

A native of Lewisham, South London, Alphonis was a flanker for Saracens WRFC and England. She was Sunday Times Sportswoman of the Year in 2010 and culminated a brilliant carrier with a World Cup victory in 2014. After retiring, she was a World Cup Ambassador in 2015, coaches, participates in charities and continues to promote the sport.

Portia Woodman

A player for the New Zealand rugby union, she formerly played for the Northern Mystics. Switching to the rugby union eight years ago, Woodman was part of the Black Ferns team in 2013 that claimed the World Cup Sevens in Russia.

Rochelle “Rocky” Clark

Clark was a member of the 2010 Women’s Rugby World Cup winning team for England. She was also part of the 2014 team in France. She made the distinction in the 2010 event as the second-highest capped player in women’s rugby history.

Rocky Clark reflects on her 15 year career and discusses the progress she has seen within the women’s game.
Emily Scarratt

A member of the English rugby union, Scarratt is a multi-position player who can play fullback or center.  Making her debut for England in 2008, she averaged a try per game in 12 games. Scarratt has also played for the Women’s Sevens and in 2014 she dominated against Canada in the World Cup to help England secure the title. She also led all players in the event with 70 points.

Cheryl Soon

A former rugby union player for Australia, Soon was a member of the third place 2010 World Cup team and was captain of the 2009 Rugby World Cup Sevens. In 2012 after retiring, she joined the Rugby Committee of the IRB..

Katherine Merchant

A graduate from Birmingham University in 2007 with a degree in Sport and Exercise Science, Merchant played for England in the 2010 and 2014 World Cup. Merchant was also part of the 2013 Rugby World Cup Sevens.

Kendra Cocksedge

A native of New Zealand, Cocksedge was a member of the 2010 World Cup winning team and the second-place 2014 team. A dominant force in the 2015 Women’s Rugby Super Series, she led all players with 26 points and was honored at the end of the season as New Zealand’s Women’s Player of the Year.

We also compiled a list of the best American women’s rugby players of all time.

Looking Ahead

Although Rugby is seen as a very physical, tough, power-oriented sport dominated by males, women have shown through the years that they can compete. Not only do women compete, but they do so at a very high level producing matches that are just as exhilarating as the men.

The game has expanded across the globe to many leagues and 21 countries participated in the World Cup over the years from areas in nearly every continent across the globe. With increased exposure, improved knowledge of the sport, training and technology, the future is bright for women’s rugby and could challenge other team sports for the top in women’s athletics.

Tim Ryan
Tim Ryan was a college rugby player and remains an avid rugby fan. He loves watching, talking, and writing about rugby. His favorite rugby tournaments to watch are the World Cup and Six Nations.