On International Women’s Day, World Rugby shines a light on the pioneering spirit that has helped female participation soar over the last 40 years.
From humble beginnings on university playing fields, the women’s game has grown into a spectacle enjoyed by millions of fans across the globe.
Below we celebrate six women who have done more than most to expand the horizons of the female game in their region.
Marjorie Enya (Brazil)
By her own admission, Marjorie Enya did not make the grade as a player. Having been introduced to the game at university, she joined Sao Paulo Athletic Club (SPAC) after completing her studies, but soon made the decision to move into administration.
“I sucked so bad [at playing], but I just wanted to stay involved and there’s a lot of opportunities off the field as well,” Enya told World Rugby in 2018.
Enya has since worked tirelessly to make the most of those off-field opportunities, working her way up from a volunteer at the Confederação Brasileira de Rugby (CBRu) to becoming team manager of the women’s national team.
In 2016, she worked at the Olympic Games in Rio, where she briefly became an internet sensation after proposing to her partner (now wife), Brazil player, Isadora Cerullo.
Two years later she held a similar role at Rugby World Cup Sevens 2018 in San Francisco, and in 2019 she became one of the first World Rugby Women’s Executive Leadership Scholarship recipients.
She balanced the scholarship alongside her commitments on the Olympic Research Group in Sao Paulo and the Development Committee of the CBRu.
Enya has continued to study, and moved to the USA in 2020 to complete a Master’s Degree at the International Olympic Academy. It was while studying in North Carolina that news broke that Enya had earned a place on the World Rugby Council as the Sudamérica Rugby representative.
“I endeavour to be able to help generate changes for the betterment of women’s rugby and the game in general both in the region and the rest of the world,” she said.
Deborah Griffin (England)
Exhibitions of women’s rugby had been played in the UK since the late 19th century, however, the modern British female game can be traced to a match Deborah Griffin organised at University College London in 1978.
Griffin and her team-mates had no idea that women even played rugby prior to their meeting with King’s College London, but the game blossomed in the years following that match.
In 1983, UCL were one of 12 founding members of the Women’s Rugby Football Union and less than 12 months on, Griffin helped to set up the first women’s club in England, at Finchley RFC.
Two years later, the WRFU hosted its first international match as Great Britain lost to France at the Athletic Ground in London, which Griffin would soon call home as she moved with the majority of her team-mates from Finchley to Richmond.
It was alongside three team-mates from Richmond — Alice Cooper, Sue Dorrington and Mary Forsyth — that she organised the inaugural women’s Rugby World Cup in Wales in 1991. The organising committee scaled a number of off-field obstacles to set in motion a tournament that continues to thrive and grow today.
Griffin would reprise her organisational role 19 years later when the women’s tournament took place in England for the first time, in 2010.
Griffin went on to sit on the RFU Council between 2010-18, has served two terms on the union’s board and was elected onto the World Rugby Council in 2018.
In 2019, she was selected as one of 15 ‘Unstoppables’, who became ambassadors of the first phase of World Rugby’s ‘Try And Stop Us’ campaign.
“I’m not sure it’s that I’m ‘unstoppable’, I just don’t think that we have got there yet. And as I have a desire to get there, I won’t stop until those things happen,” she told World Rugby at the time.
Zenay Jordaan (South Africa)
One of the first group of female South African rugby players to be awarded professional contracts, Zenay Jordaan grew up surrounded by the game on the Eastern Cape.
Jordaan would wake up early to watch matches alongside her father, before heading outside to put what she had seen on the TV into practice.
Playing pick-up matches against boys awakened a competitive spirit within the youngster, and she found an outlet for it when she discovered a local women’s team.
She soon blossomed and caught the eye of international selectors in 2009, when she made her South Africa sevens debut a month short of her 18th birthday. Jordaan followed that up with a first test appearance five months later.
Jordaan, who put firefighter training on hold to sign her professional contract, has since represented her country at three Rugby World Cup Sevens and two Rugby World Cups. At 29, she is still in contention to feature at a sixth global tournament.
“I actually did some reflection about what I've achieved so far,” Jordaan told World Rugby last year. “If I make it to the sixth World Cup, it would really mean a lot.
“But, I also said if it doesn't happen that way, then I know that I've already played my part, and that part was when we qualified for the World Cup. So, either way, if I make it or if I don't make it, I'll be proud of that.”
Noriko Kishida (Japan)
According to the official women’s Rugby World Cup 1991 tournament brochure, the women’s game had emerged in Japan in the early 1980s “with a number of mothers taking up the sport having seen the fun their sons were having”.
Noriko Kishida was one of those mothers. She did not pick up a rugby ball until she was 37, but along with a group of friends formed Liberty Fields WRFC, the team that would provide 15 players for the Japanese squad in South Wales.
Kishida, who was a founding member of the Japan Women’s Rugby Football Union in 1988, became a de-facto team manager on the road to Cardiff, liaising with the organising committee and providing details of the accommodation and travel arrangements.
She had turned 45 by the time the tournament kicked-off in Wales, but lined up in the front-row for both of Japan’s pool matches, a 62-0 defeat to France and 20-0 loss against Sweden.
Kishida returned to Rugby World Cup in 2002 as head coach, leading Japan into matches against Spain, Italy, the Netherlands and Ireland.
Candi Orsini (USA)
Candi Orsini describes herself as a “pre-Title IX kid”, which means she went to school before educational reform in the USA stimulated sporting opportunities for women and girls.
A lack of opportunities at high school meant she arrived at Florida State University, in 1975, so eager to play team sports that she tried out for the softball, volleyball and rugby teams.
Orsini played all three but the combination of the physical and mental challenge offered by rugby ensured the oval ball became the one that dominated her life.
“I love the physicality, I really love that,” she said. “But, when you combine it with the intellectual challenge and the fact that when you got on the field, you owned your own game, so to speak… I fell in love with it.”
Orsini would play for FSU for the next 23 years, helping them reach 13 national finals in that time. She was also selected to tour England and France with the all-conquering ‘Wiverns’ squad in 1985, scoring nine tries in just five appearances.
The centre appeared in the USA’s first women’s test, a 22-3 defeat of Canada in 1987, and four years later played all four matches as the team won the inaugural women’s Rugby World Cup. Although she was 34 by the time of the triumph in Cardiff, Orsini went on to represent her country at two further Rugby World Cups.
Following retirement Orisini turned her hand to coaching and travelled to Rugby World Cup 2006 as an assistant coach with the Women’s Eagles, whom she led to England 2010 as head coach.
Inducted into the U.S. Rugby Hall of Fame in 2017, Orisini has also held several coaching positions with men’s teams in the States.
Farah Palmer (New Zealand)
So good, they named a tournament after her. Farah Palmer is the most successful captain in Rugby World Cup history, having led the Black Ferns to a three-peat of titles between 1998-2006.
Palmer, who grew up close to fellow World Rugby Hall of Fame inductee, Colin Meads, had taken her first steps onto a rugby pitch during a women’s exhibition in her village, Piopo.
However, it was at university in Dunedin that her talent as a hooker alerted New Zealand selectors, and in 1996 she made her Black Ferns debut against Australia.
The following year Palmer was made captain, and it would prove to be a shrewd decision. Between 1997 and her retirement in 2006, New Zealand lost only one match, making her the country’s greatest ever female skipper.
Those three Rugby World Cup titles would also follow, as the USA were beaten in the showpiece match in 1998, and England suffered defeat in consecutive finals in 2002 and 2006.
Palmer, meanwhile, was inducted into the World Rugby Hall of Fame, alongside Meads, in 2014. In recognition of her contribution to the game, in 2016, New Zealand Rugby renamed its Women’s Provincial Championship as the Farah Palmer Cup.
In December of that year, Palmer became the first female member of the NZR Board having been elected as its Maori representative, while in 2018 her passionate speech to the World Rugby Council helped New Zealand win the right to host Rugby World Cup 2021.
Palmer currently works at Massey University as a Senior Lecturer and Associate Dean, Maori, having found time to complete a PhD between her first and second Rugby World Cup triumphs.