Women’s Rugby World Cup 1991: How the historic tournament left a lasting legacy

On the 30th anniversary of the inaugural women’s Rugby World Cup, we look back at the momentous tournament.

At approximately 12:55 on Saturday 6 April, 1991, Debbie Chase stood on the halfway line of Glamorgan Wanderers’ Memorial Ground, and prepared to make history.

Before the opening match of the inaugural women’s Rugby World Cup could get underway on the outskirts of Cardiff, another milestone needed to be ticked off.

Behind the New Zealand centre, her team-mates stood in a semi-circle facing their opponents from Canada, waiting for Chase to lead them in the first Haka to be performed by a women’s team.

“It was pretty cool,” Chase’s centre partner that day, Natasha Wong, said.

“Even just that first time hearing the national anthem, even thinking about it now, you can think about how emotional it was. 

“And, I think also because it had taken so much to get there as well, it was almost like, ‘Oh my God, we've made it, we're here, we're doing it and how cool is this?’”

‘I can’t feel my hands!’

The New Zealand players took that emotion onto the pitch, where two tries from Chase and a Helen Mahon hat-trick helped the Women’s All Blacks, as they were known for the tournament, to a 24-8 victory.

Footage of the match shows the touchline flags fluttering in an increasingly strong wind, but the New Zealand and Canadian players got off lightly when it came to that day’s inclement weather.

The USA’s match against the Netherlands kicked off 90 minutes later at Pontypool Park, where a deluge of rain left American flanker Cathy Seabaugh so disoriented that she attempted to bind onto a scrum facing in the wrong direction.

At St Helen’s in Swansea, meanwhile, the rain that whipped off the nearby sea was so cold that England fly-half Karen Almond asked scrum-half Emma Mitchell to stop passing her the ball.

“She'd give me signals,” Mitchell said. “Usually, I could hit the target she wanted and she was putting out her hands mainly just for a static sort of pass directly to her, because she was having to kick so much. 

“But I was hitting her hands, which is what I'd usually do, and I'd be proud of that. But, it was just hitting her hands and going on the floor. 

“She came over to me and she said: ‘I can't feel my hands!’”

Despite the conditions, Almond and Mitchell managed to steer England to victory against Spain in Swansea, while the USA overcame the Netherlands and France beat Japan in the tournament’s fourth match.

England, France, New Zealand and the USA would emerge from the pool stage to meet in the semi-finals at Cardiff Arms Park on the following Friday.

The USA beat New Zealand 7-0 before England overcame France 13-0 to set up a mouthwatering inaugural women’s Rugby World Cup final at the home of Cardiff RFC two days later.

England struck first in the showpiece match, as Gill Burns converted a penalty try, but the USA proved too good on the day, scoring three unanswered tries through Claire Godwin (two) and Patty Connell to secure a 19-6 victory.

“I was really proud,” said USA captain Barb Bond, who had scored the match-winning try in the semi-final but was an unused replacement against England. 

“Speaking in the broader sense, I felt like we were on our way. Like this wasn’t going to be the last World Cup, it was only the first.”

Working around the clock

It is a sentiment shared by many of those involved in the tournament, and is a testament to the dedication and tireless hard work of the four-woman organising committee that put it on.

Deborah Griffin was charged with chairing the organising committee and turned to three team-mates at Richmond WRFC for their help and expertise; Alice Cooper, Sue Dorrington and Mary Forsyth.

The four women faced myriad challenges in putting on the first women’s Rugby World Cup, as they worked around the clock to build tournament infrastructure from scratch while holding down full-time jobs, and in the case of Griffin and Forsyth, becoming mothers for the first time.

There was no let-up during tournament week either, as Griffin was required to smooth things over with Customs officials after members of the USSR squad attempted to sell souvenirs on the Cardiff streets in order to raise funds.

Dorrington, meanwhile, lined up at hooker in all four of England’s matches.

“We were just working non-stop,” Griffin said. “There weren’t the computers and things so Alice would be producing all the programmes overnight for the next day. 

“If you look at the turnaround, we had no turnaround really. So, we were just ridiculous really and things [were] going wrong all the time and having to be on call the whole time. 

“So, it was just a whole eight days of not sleeping really.”

Griffin admits her overriding feeling on the morning after the final was one of relief that they had pulled it off and the tournament had been a success.

“It was relief that we’d done it and got there,” she said. “I mean absolute relief, I think I’d run myself into the ground.”

Lasting legacy

But, the impact the tournament had, and legacy it has left, can be seen in the number of women who were involved in that first women’s Rugby World Cup who currently hold influential positions in the game.

Griffin, herself, was again on the organising committee when England hosted Rugby World Cup 2010, and has since sat on the Rugby Football Union Council, England Rugby Board and was one of the first women elected onto the World Rugby Council.

Through her work at the RFU, she played an influential role in the introduction of professional contracts for England’s women’s team and the foundation of the Premier 15s competition.

She works at the RFU with head of women’s performance Nicky Ponsford, who was Dorrington’s understudy for England in 1991, while World Rugby Hall of Fame inductee Carol Isherwood has helped World Rugby conduct a review into women in high performance coaching.

Liza BurgessBurns, Giselle Mather, Emma Mitchell, Candi Orsini, Anna Richards and Wong are just a selection of players from the first women’s tournament who have gone on to hold influential roles in coaching or the boardroom — or both.

“Everybody gets frustrated and wants to be 10 steps further on than we are,” Ponsford said. 

“But, actually the ability to look back and say, ‘Look how far we have come’, I think is really important. 

“And, we shouldn't forget the work that everybody has put in to get us to the point we are now.”

READ MORE: Graduates hail Women’s Sports Leadership Academy High Performance programme as game-changer >>

Last updated: Apr 6, 2021, 7:44:25 AM
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