- This article is an extract from issue 4 of quarterly RUGBY
- To find out more visit therugbyjournal.com/subscribe
Depending on which side of the Channel you take your rugby history lessons, women’s rugby was either first played in France in 1903 or in England in 1913.
And no doubt somewhere in the annals of history, Scotland and Wales have a claim somewhere too. But when it really started to get going in the UK was more than eight decades later, sparked by a chance meeting between two students in a Lancashire hop field.
It was the universities that first gave women’s rugby a foothold. In England, it started to gain traction in the 1960s, a trend that was spreading across Europe, to France, Netherlands and Spain, and across the Atlantic in Canada and United States. Needless to say, Australia and New Zealand were never far behind.
But the foundations of the first official union, the WRFU, that arrived with all the relevant paperwork in the 1980s, might have taken longer to come about had it not been for two students hop-picking between terms.
'I'm setting a team up'
Leeds University undergraduate Carol Isherwood was always a big sports fan, and had always been the girl that wanted to play the 'boys’' games at school, but the concept of actually being allowed to play rugby had never even crossed her mind. Until she met Christine Kendrick, a fellow student, only from Sheffield University who was also earning a few pounds picking hops to help fund the student life.
Like Carol, Christine loved sport, and, in particular, rugby but not only as a fan, she was playing the game. Christine, who would later set up the Sale women’s side, proved an inspiration. “I went, ‘oh my god there’s women playing rugby, I’m going to play’, I’m setting a team up,” Carol says from her Twickenham home. “It was my final year at uni, 1981-82, and I was supposed to be concentrating on exams but I wasn’t really, I was setting up a rugby team. "Oh my god there's women playing rugby..."
“I put a note on the men’s union notice board and a couple of the guys wrote on it that they’d help coach, which they did at our first session.”
Competition in these early stages consisted of friendly matches between university sides. “Everyone who was joining the team just wanted to play rugby,” says Carol, “either because brothers did, or boyfriends did, or they just loved the game, and so it was just great to be able to give it a go and then see that there were other teams around so that you could have some competition.”
The club scene in the early 1980s was made up of just a handful of teams that were widely dispersed across the country. Competition came in the form of friendlies and teams travelling the breadth of the country for the odd game on a Sunday afternoon.
'You’re the Secretary with a capital S’.
Now in her third year at university, the need for more organisation on the playing side was becoming evident. Several universities had already started meeting on a regular basis to discuss the game. “We wanted a competition structure, we wanted to know who the best team in the country were and so at the start of 1983, it was suggested we set up a governing body,” explains Carol.
The end result of a year of meetings in living rooms on Friday nights was, effectively, the Women’s Rugby Football Union, as it gained certification at the end of 1983. “One of our mates worked for the Sport’s Council and worked on the constitution,” says Carol, “and another was a lawyer who helped with the legal side.”
The union was formed with representatives from Leicester Polytechnic, Sheffield University, University College London, University of Keele, Warwick University, Imperial College, Leeds University, York University, Loughborough University and Magor Maidens; the only official women’s club at the time.
Carol who wasn’t able to attend in person, was nonetheless, nominated as chair. “I rang them up from a telephone box in Leeds to find out what happened, and they went, ‘you’re the Secretary with a capital S’. So that was me, I chaired the board for the next four years, and ran the group.”
As chair of the WRFU, Carol was driven to spread the word as quickly as possible. She developed a starter pack of rules, regulations, how to set up team and general advice on getting a club going which was sent to everyone showing interest.
Then, when the first wave of university rugby players graduated, they flocked to their nearest men’s clubs requesting the packs to form their own women’s side.
“When we left university we wanted to keep playing,” recalls Carol. “People just went out wherever they were living making the case for the men’s club to start a women’s side. There were two major selling points. One, it’s probably the right thing to do and it’s good fun. And, two, bar sales.
“That was always a good sales point, you get money over the bar on a Sunday and you’ll get more people in the club to help out.
“Suddenly it just went up and up, it was quite amazing, within several years we were up to 75 teams.”
Carol played for Richmond, which rocketed in popularity. “We were first club to have three women sides,” she says. “We were probably the biggest club in the world [at that time].”
Just two years after the living room meetings, in 1985 women’s rugby in the UK, was being covered by national newspapers. The standard of the game was continually evaluated, first being labelled as ‘equivalent to good schoolboy rugby’ and ‘very physical but not as fast’ but consistently improving. In terms of the club game, the UK was on the front foot, but in the international stakes, they were already lagging behind. France had already stole a march and played the Netherlands in the world’s first international women’s rugby fixture.
Great Britain v France
The next progression for Carol and the WRFU was to match their neighbours across the Channel, which was brought to the table in 1985. “So we sat and discussed it and asked, ‘too soon?’
“But we decided it would generate a shop window, and more interest in the game, so we decided to do it. We invited the French over, and, because there weren’t enough people playing in Scotland or in Wales, we put together a Great Britain side.”
Carol was named captain and they had world-class coaches. “We had fantastic coaches early on,” she says. “Jim Greenwood [who played for both Scotland and the British & Irish Lions] got involved, because he was coaching Loughborough, and he was a top coach.
“We also got quite a bit of ‘in-kind’ sponsorship with Rhino providing tackle shields and scrum machine stuff, Gilbert would do the balls, and the unions provided us with referees.”
Great Britain faced France on the 19th of April 1986, at Richmond Athletic Park, with the home side losing 8-14. “It was a decent level of game,” Carol remembers “…there were some pretty good athletes on our side and the French were good. It was close!”
The fixture was repeated for the next three years, with two more defeats for the British (losing away 28-6 in 1987, and again away 8-6 in 1988), before finally winning 13-0 at Rosslyn Park in 1989.
Although England and Wales were able to field teams independently by 1987, the Great Britain team wasn’t disbanded until 1990 when Scotland and Wales had developed a sustainable number of players in the region. In total, Great Britain would play eight Tests with wins against Italy (32-9 and 32-0) and the Netherlands (16-0 and 26-0), joining the French as opposition.
'The best game in the world'
With numbers consistently on the rise, both England and Wales were able to field their own squads on the 5th April 1987 in Pontypool, Wales. “I mean it was incredible,” says Carol. “An England v Wales game, everybody was happy with that.”
Especially Carol, with England winning the first-ever Test against Wales 22-4.
Carol stepped down from Chair later that year, to focus more on organising her England squad, and the WRFU, now led by Deborah Griffin, continued to build on the solid foundations, with the first women’s World Cup following in 1991, in Wales.
Twelve teams participated in the tournament, despite the International Rugby Board refusing to recognise it as an official World Cup. England, still captained by Carol, placed second, losing to the United States 19-6 in the final. The following year, Carol was forced to retire from playing due to injury, and turned her focus to coaching, becoming the assistant coach for England women as they entered the next world cup.
It would take three years for another women’s world cup to take place in 1994, this time in Scotland, where England had their first world cup victory, defeating the USA 38-23 in the final.
In less than a decade the game had grown from a handful of sides to having 12 nations compete against each other. Through the pure determination and sporting passion of Carol and her friends, they laid the foundation for what has become one of the fastest growing women’s sport in the world.
“We all just wanted to play,” says Carol, “so we made it happen. Because it’s the best game in the world, isn’t it?”
This article is an extract from issue 4 of quarterly RUGBY, which also features interviews with Danny Cipriani, Kyle Sinckler, Steve Diamond, Rory Underwood and a life story on Richmond FC.
To find out more visit therugbyjournal.com/subscribe