Deborah Griffin was shocked to discover how little sport girls played when she returned to England from Australia in the early 1970s.
Griffin had emigrated with her parents aged just five years old and took an active lifestyle almost for granted as she grew up on the other side of the world. But the young Griffin suddenly found herself an anomaly as she started her studies at school in Stevenage.
She continued to swim and run but the apathy of her peers on the student body, and beyond, sparked a lifelong desire to encourage more women to participate in sport.
“I was just really surprised at how little sport females did, and it wasn’t encouraged and they all thought it was uncool,” she said.
Griffin admits that she “didn’t know rugby at all” when she pitched up in London to begin her course at University College London (UCL), but was soon introduced to it by her university boyfriend, who played the sport.
One day, watching on from the sidelines alongside a group of girlfriends, the idea was formulated to challenge their contemporaries at King’s College to a game.
No one at UCL was even sure that such a thing as women’s rugby existed but they knew that their counterparts would have to accept or risk losing points in what is now known as the London Varsity Series.
So, Griffin and her new team-mates hit the gymnasium, threw a ball around and honed up on the basic laws of the game before taking on their university’s great rivals for the first time in 1978.
“We played and the overwhelming feeling, which I’ve heard quite a few people say, when we came off was just like ‘Wow, that was fun’,” Griffin recalled.
“And they challenged us for a return fixture and then we started asking other universities if they would get a team up, and so it was done for the pure enjoyment of the game.”
Griffin had found her calling. As more and more universities agreed to raise teams, she was one of the founders of the Women’s Rugby Football Union five years later before, in 1991, Griffin helped to organise the inaugural Women’s Rugby World Cup in Wales.
Latterly she sat on the RFU Council, as the women and girls’ representative, between 2010-18 while she is serving her second term on the union’s board and has also been elected onto the World Rugby Council.
“I still believe that the issues are still there in terms of getting more females to participate in sport [and] for female sport to be valued,” she said as she explained what continues to drive her work.
“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.
“I want younger people to take up sport as normal.
“Nobody wants to listen to a 60-year-old woman who’s been there, done that and I’m very, very conscious that I don’t limit other people’s ambition, aspirations, and encourage that next level of people.”
Griffin never played international rugby – “which people always find really bizarre” – but she jokes that she has been a test-class administrator.
Her experiences in the game also dictate that she has a collection of stories that people do want to listen to. That is certainly the case when talk turns to her role in putting on the inaugural Women’s Rugby World Cup.
Not long after Richmond Women returned from an unbeaten nine-match tour of New Zealand in 1989, invites were sent out for clubs and international teams from across the globe to visit the Land of the Long White Cloud.
Worried they would not be able to raise the funds to make the trip again so soon, four members at Richmond – Griffin, Sue Dorrington, Alice Cooper and Mary Forsyth – discussed the possibility of hosting an international tournament in the UK.
First World Cup
Discussions became more serious at the start of 1990 and soon a date, April 1991, was selected primarily as it would enable the organising committee to approach universities to use their accommodation.
Having spoken to both Leicester and Bristol, Cardiff was picked with the Arms Park made available for the final. The late Vernon Pugh then helped find venues for the pool matches.
Griffin gave birth to her first daughter five months before the tournament and spent much of her maternity leave consumed by the upcoming World Cup, working tirelessly to make sure that it was a success.
Her role during the eight-day tournament was an off-field one, distributing programmes and keeping the teams out of trouble. During the final, which was won by the USA, journalist Stephen Jones was seconded to look after her baby.
“It was brilliant, the whole thing,” Griffin said.
“I have to say it almost destroyed me, I think I had a breakdown virtually afterwards. I didn’t speak to anybody for about six months.
“I didn’t sleep the whole week. It was over eight days, remember, so we had all those games over eight days which is crazy, you wouldn’t do that for player welfare now – what were we thinking?!
“But what was great was afterwards I had letters from people going ‘Thank you’. Even now there are people who go ‘Thank you for doing that’.
“It obviously impacted a lot of people and it certainly, I think with the benefit of hindsight, was a real game-changer for women’s rugby.
“Partly because it brought all those nations together for the first time and everybody said actually, we’re doing something.”
The work Griffin did to get that first Women’s Rugby World Cup off the ground could soon be immortalised on the big screen, with a Steve Speirs-written screen play currently looking for funding for production.
“I’ve watched a read-through,” she said. “Woah, that’s really weird. Watching somebody up there playing you, and actually not saying your words because it’s not me speaking, it’s the screenwriter speaking through somebody else.”
Developing to same level
Griffin was also on the organising committee when England hosted Women’s Rugby World Cup 2010, a tournament that concluded with a sold-out final at Twickenham Stoop.
That match highlighted the progress that had been made in the 32 years since she first picked up an oval ball, but in the nine that have followed the sport has moved on again.
England became fully professional at the start of 2019 and Griffin has also overseen the introduction of the Tyrrells Premier 15s, a new league designed to drive standards in the domestic game.
But while the RFU can be happy with the health of women’s rugby in England, it cannot be complacent – and that is where Griffin hopes to use her influence on the World Rugby Council.
“If we’ve got 35,000 players, and that’s people playing regularly, we don’t want to be the only country that’s got that. We want everybody to develop women’s rugby to the same level,” she said.
“That’s where World Rugby can be really powerful, in giving other unions the tools to do that.”