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: May 14, 2021, 2:28:10 PM
HK women's sevens head coach Iain Monaghan
wr-women-news-sevens sevens-news-women wr-news-olympics-repechage-teams sevens wr-news-sevens Olympic Qualifying wr-news-olympics-w Olympics wr-news wr-women-news wr-news-olympics-m sevens-news-men
Olympic Repechage contenders Hong Kong have already conquered their ‘Everest’
Hong Kong’s women have been ‘moving mountains’ in a bid to be in the best possible shape for the World Rugby Olympic Sevens Repechage in Monaco on 18-20 June.
Rugby Africa Women's Cup 2019: South Africa v Kenya - CREDIT: Gallo Images
wr-women-news-regions wr-news Women's Development Women's wr-women-news wr-women-news-power Womens
South Africa “no longer just a follower” when it comes to gender diversity in rugby
We spoke to World Rugby Council member Vanessa Doble about the constitutional amendments SA Rugby has made to increase female representation in its governance structures.
Maria Thomas
wr-women-news-regions wr-news Women's Development Women's wr-women-news Feature wr-women-news-power Womens
Maria Thomas putting scholarship lessons into practice as Trinidad and Tobago RFU’s first female president
We caught up with the World Rugby Women’s Executive Leadership Scholarship recipient following her historic election win.
WIR_Landscape_Scrum
wr-news wr-women-news mz-advisory RWC2021 Rugby World Cup wr-women-news-2021
World Rugby welcomes Mastercard as founding global partner of Women in Rugby and unveils new marketing campaign
World Rugby has announced details of a transformative five-year partnership with Mastercard and has also launched its new Team Powered marketing campaign.
Photo of players running out at a Japan rugby test event
wr-women-news-sevens wr-news wr-women-news wr-news-asia wr-news-sevens
Japan sevens chief hopes Tokyo Olympics continues cycle of success
With 50 days to go until the men’s final of the Olympic rugby sevens competition, Japan head coach Kensuke Iwabuchi looks forward to competing on home soil in Tokyo.
Amanda Cox
wr-women-news-regions wr-women-news-coach wr-news Women's Development Women's wr-women-news Feature Womens
Amanda Cox on the fight for more female representation in refereeing
We caught up with the referee coach to discuss her life in rugby and find out what needs to be done to create more opportunities for women to become match officials.
Photo of the France and Tunisia sides during a training camp at Marcoussis
Olympics wr-news Women's wr-women-news wr-news-olympics-repechage-teams sevens Team News Womens
The "Rebellious" preparing to fly the Tunisian flag in Monaco
As we reach 50 days to the rugby sevens kick-off at the Tokyo Olympics, the Tunisian women's rugby sevens team prepares to play their second World Rugby Sevens Repechage in Monaco, with ambitions beyond Tokyo 2020.
Argentine 7s captain Gimena Mattus attacks during the 2019 Pan American Games.
wr-women-news-sevens wr-news wr-women-news Feature wr-news-sevens Preview Olympic Qualifying
Argentina looking to end a difficult two years with history at Monaco sevens showdown
Argentina won't be flying into Monaco's Olympic Repechage as favourites, but that isn't stopping their dreams of Tokyo, as coach Tomás Bongiorno and captain Gime Mattus tell World Rugby.
Germany win Lodz Sevens 2019
wr-news-sevens wr-women-news-sevens wr-news wr-women-news
Germany look to new generation to defend Rugby Europe men’s sevens crown
Germany men’s sevens head coach Damian McGrath speaks to World Rugby ahead of the start of the Rugby Europe Championship Sevens Series.
HSBC New Zealand Sevens 2020 - Women's
sevens-news wr-women-news-sevens Women's sevens-news-women sevens wr-news-sevens sevens-news-feature sevens-news-olympic wr-news-olympics-w Olympics wr-news wr-women-news Tournament News Womens
Emilee Cherry: Five memorable moments from the career of a rugby sevens pioneer
Following the announcement that Cherry will hang up her boots prior to the Tokyo Olympics, we recap some of her best moments in the green and gold of Australia.