Women’s Rugby & 6 Nations

Women’s rugby has become extremely popular in recent years and statistics show that it continues to snowball at all levels of play and attracts more new players every season the men’s sector at community and grassroot levels. There are an estimated 2.8 million female rugby players in the world and is still increasing at an average rate of 10% per year. Women players in UK receive a minimum of £24,000 a season at top club level which is hardly comparable to the men’s sector where top players at club level can earn up to a £750,000 a season plus bonuses. However, women’s rugby is making inroads to gain more recognition and attract international sponsors for all the major tournaments including contracts for the lucrative TV rights.

(*Picture Credits:en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emily_Valentine)

Women’s rugby has a sketchy history and the first documented encounter dates back to 1884 when Emily Valentine of the Portora Royal School in Enniskillen, Ireland fielded a team in which she scored a try. Later in 1891 a N. Zealand attempted to tour which caused such an outrage from the public that it was forced to abandon the tour as it was classed socially unacceptable for women to behave in an unbecoming fashion. This forced women to play the game secretly and hidden from public view, though they still continued to play and in 1917 up pops the Cardiff Ladies v Newport Ladies in a permitted charity match at the famous Cardiff Arms Park stadium. A special mention for the Cardiff player Maria Eley who died in 2006 at the age of 106, the oldest ever rugby player. Women’s rugby then becomes a ghost again with two world wars halting any advancement until 1962 when Edinburgh University travelled to France and played Toulouse Femina, this re-ignited women’s rugby and the French university formed ARFR, Association Francais de Rugby Feminin in 1970, many universities around the world joined. The international promotion of the game led to nations forming non-university teams and so women’s rugby progressed although rarely reported or mentioned in the media. In the years since that documented game in Ireland women attempted to play and form various rugby union bodies but encountered multiple problems and interruptions which hindered serious league formations and women’s rugby shone sporadically. In the 70s and 80s came a real change for rugby and with intentions focused unions began to take shape around the world, Canada, USA, Netherlands and UK. 1983 saw the birth of WRFU in UK and the following year LNRF, Lega Nazionale Rugby Feminile in Italy. In fact the 80s witnessed a revolutionary change in attitudes toward women playing rugby with many organisations recognising and integrating women’s rugby into the various men only governing bodies including the RWC which was known as the IRB back then. If the 80s were revolutionary for women’s rugby then the 90s were truly explosive as the first ever women’s world cup competition was staged, this took place in Wales amidst controversy with male dominated rugby unions not supporting their female counterparts in spirit or financially plus the media hardly mentioned the women’s competition as the men’s version in 1991 captured the headlines in England. The first women’s world champions was the USA who defeated England in the final, however, it was a great success and the following world cup came in 1994, again some controversy as the Netherlands was the chosen venue but lacking support it moved to Scotland just 3 months before it was supposed to start, the final was a repeat of the first final, USA v ENG but this time the English avenged their loss by winning 23-38. The reluctance from rugby federations to validate the women’s competition did not dampen the spirits and they persevered to obtain recognition which saw the IRB introduce and accept women’s rugby for future support as they did for the men’s sector. More changes were on the way and in 1996 the Women’s Home Nations was held while in 1997 came Hong Kong 7s Women’s Tournament followed by the fully supported and sanctioned Women’s World Cup Rugby Tournament in 1998 when the IRB changed its name to World Rugby and affiliated more international rugby federations finally acknowledging women’s rugby. Yet, there was more to come with the new millennium and in 2000 the 6 Nations for women was introduced with one difference to the men’s competition, Spain was included instead of Italy who later replaced Spain in 2007. Like the men before it became the 6 Nations it grew from Home Nations and 5 Nations. Since the competition started England and France have dominated and Ireland being the only other team to win the title, twice, in 2013 and ’15. While the men’s version had been on mainstream TV every year the women’s 6 Nations only gained coverage for all matches in 2016, this proved to be a success and viewer numbers have increased significantly thereafter.

Women’s rugby continues to gain more of the limelight and RFU Rugby Museum dedicated their annual exhibition to the history of Women’s Rugby in 2006 and the RWC has inducted 10 of the world’s most prolific women players into the RWC Hall of Fame since 2014. World Rugby estimate that by 2026 women will represent 40% of all rugby players and be played in over 80 countries worldwide. Even at community levels women’s and girl’s rugby are being included in existing men only tournaments such as the Krakow Rugby Festival that introduced a women’s 7s competition to run simultaneously with the men, it was a huge success and continues to do so.