On Tuesday 27 November 1990, the organisers of the inaugural women’s Rugby World Cup held simultaneous press conferences in Cardiff and London to launch their historic event.
The Bute Room at the iconic Cardiff Arms Park – where the semi-finals and final would be played the following April – and the Conference Rooms at Richmond’s Athletic Ground were set up almost identically as journalists and invited dignitaries took their places.
However, there was one significant difference to the set-up in south-west London. To the side of the top table where organising committee chair Deborah Griffin would make her welcoming speech was a colourful display.
Placed in front of a large display board plastered with the tournament’s logo was a smaller table on which a rugby ball and flowers served to frame the prize that the participating nations would compete for in South Wales: the first women’s Rugby World Cup trophy.
“I wanted something proper”
The press pack that was handed to journalists as they registered in London and Cardiff and had been posted to foreign correspondents the previous evening, contained a picture of the cup.
“It is antique solid silver and we believe presents a strong but feminine image to portray our game,” the release read.
Following a half-hour presentation, England players Karen Almond, Debbie Francis, Carol Isherwood and Sam Robson posed alongside the trophy for photos that would appear in the next day’s newspapers and January’s edition of Rugby World & Post.
Although insured on Griffin’s home policy, the original women’s Rugby World Cup had been selected by the organising committee’s commercial manager, Sue Dorrington during a trip to London’s Hatton Garden.
Dorrington, who led proceedings in Cardiff on that Tuesday morning so was not in Richmond to unveil the trophy to the world, was attracted to the cup by the intricate lace-like pattern on its rim.
“I didn't want some tinny fake trophy,” Dorrington remembered more than three decades later.
“I wanted something proper, like a silver cup and that's where I headed, I went into Hatton Garden and found this cup and have since learned through Phill [McGowan] at the World Rugby Museum that it was commissioned in 1924.”
Dorrington added: “It just looked different; it was more feminine. I know that one shouldn't choose one's trophies on that basis, but it stood out for me, and it was the biggest one I could afford because then they got bigger and got more and more expensive.
“So, it was the biggest and the most attractive one I could afford.”
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JB Jewellery and Antiques invoiced the organising committee just over £1,000 for the trophy, a figure that would increase with engraving.
Given the tournament’s organisers, Griffin, Dorrington, Alice Cooper and Mary Forsyth were struggling to attract sponsorship for the event, that was not an inconsiderable sum.
“I think we had a bit of a barney about how much she spent on it,” Griffin recalled. “There we were with no money, and she goes and spends £1,000 or whatever on a bloody cup!”
After 15 years it's finally been found!— England Rugby (@EnglandRugby) October 21, 2021
The story of how the first women's Rugby World Cup trophy was found 🏆 pic.twitter.com/dAY2PYY9Ff
Four months later, 12 women’s national teams arrived in South Wales to contest the inaugural Rugby World Cup, a tournament won by the USA following a 19-6 win against England in the final at Cardiff Arms Park on 14 April 1991.
The Americans soon discovered it was a difficult trophy to celebrate with because the lace detail that had caught Dorrington’s eye made it almost impossible to drink from.
There were no complaints from the victors, though, and certainly not from Dorrington’s England team-mates three years later when they avenged that defeat, beating the USA 38-23 in Edinburgh to get their hands on the antique trophy.
“It just adds another funny story,” World Rugby Hall of Fame inductee Gill Burns, who lined up for England at number eight in those first two finals, said. “It’s perfect, it’s a beautiful trophy.”
Lost and found
Following England’s victory in 1994, the trophy was taken on tour and was displayed during roadshows put on by the Rugby Football Union for Women (RFUW).
A new trophy for the women’s tournament was unveiled ahead of Rugby World Cup 1998 and bar a brief appearance at an exhibition at the World Rugby Museum at Twickenham, it seemed the original cup had been lost.
“We’d decided that someone had pinched it and melted it down because it’s a silver cup,” Burns said. “We just thought it had gone.”
Burns put out an appeal for the trophy on Twitter, but it came to nothing, until last year when she received an email out of the blue from a former administrator at the RFUW.
Helen Ames had been clearing out her parents’ loft when she came across two boxes. One contained a stack of RFUW meeting minutes and sat proudly in the other was the first women’s Rugby World Cup.
“It was quite emotional, really, because we just thought it had gone and we treasured the odd photograph that we had holding it,” Burns said.
“We laughed about the memories of trying to drink champagne out of it and then tipping it up and all the champagne fell through the lace all over us, so that was quite funny to remember.
“But to actually have it in the end, it was locked up in a box with a glass front on, but just to have it was very special.”
Coincidentally, Burns picked up the trophy on the same day that she was due to visit the current England squad with a group of former players, including Dorrington and Isherwood.
Life is very different for the current Red Roses, but they were transfixed by the stories the pioneers had to tell on that evening last October.
“The girls were genuinely, totally engaged and interested,” Burns added.
“Ellie Kildunne said to me afterwards, ‘I was at school, I was a rugby player, I was good at it and now I'm paid for doing it, and I never once thought about that not being possible for people who've been international players before’.
“She just opened her eyes to the fact that it had been a struggle for a while for us, and it was lovely to hear that.”
Although the original trophy had been found no one could locate the key for the box it was housed in.
Fortunately, McGowan and his colleagues at the World Rugby Museum were able to prise it from its casing. The cup is currently on display as part of the Rugby World Cup: In Her Own Words exhibition, which runs until 31 October.
“It’s lovely,” Griffin said. “It’s a beautiful thing.”
(Photo credit: World Rugby Museum, Twickenham)