Since Barb Bond and Mary Sullivan became the first female captains to lift the Rugby World Cup trophy aloft in jubilation, in Cardiff in 1991, the tournament has been established as the pinnacle of the women’s game.
In the intervening years, a further five captains have been faced with the dilemma of exactly how to celebrate once the cup is placed in their hands. Farah Palmer, who had that honour in three successive RWCs, has subsequently taken her place in the World Rugby Hall of Fame.
But how does it feel to lead your country to ultimate glory? We hear the stories of those that have done it and find out what becoming a world champion meant to them.
Barb Bond, USA 1991
Barb Bond had played a significant role in the USA’s run to the final. It was the captain who came up with the ball to claim the only try in her side’s 7-0 defeat of New Zealand in the semi-final.
However, head coach Kevin O’Brien was clearly not one for sentimentality and named Bond among the replacements for the showpiece match in favour of a back-row of Claire Godwin, Morgan Whitehead and Kathy Flores.
“It was of course heartbreaking to me but that was the decision that got made and, you know, you just have to be ready and suck it up,” Bond said.
The number eight would watch on from the sidelines at Cardiff Arms Park as two second-half Godwin tries helped the USA win the inaugural women’s tournament with a 19-6 victory over England.
Having dealt with the disappointment of not playing, Bond was on hand to hoist the RWC trophy into the Cardiff sky alongside Mary Sullivan, who had captained the team on the day.
“Being the rugby nerd that I was and am, I said: ‘When we get it, we have to lift it up!’ So we did,” Bond added.
“I was just hyper-aware of the moment, that it was an historic moment and we needed to respond in that way, you know.
“I was really proud. 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.”
Karen Almond, England 1994
"I knew after that meeting that I was going to be World Champion on Sunday."— SportsJOE (@SportsJOE_UK) March 9, 2020
Women's Rugby legends Nicky Ponsford, @Waterloonumber8 and @GiselleM18 relive that 1994 World Cup final and talk about how they had to pay for their own hotel! 🏆 pic.twitter.com/MiOhvsUhQv
England’s squad used their own RWC 1991 heartbreak as a motivation in the three years between the first final and the second tournament in Scotland.
Karen Almond had captained the Red Roses in 1991 and again piloted the side to the showpiece game in Edinburgh, orchestrating wins over Scotland, Russia, Canada and France from fly-half to set-up a rematch against the USA.
“I think we were more confident that we had a game plan to match America and beat them. But again, it’s how you play on the day,” she said.
England reserved arguably their best performance for the final at Raeburn Place and gained a modicum of revenge for what had happened in Cardiff three years earlier with a 38-23 win.
It ensured that Almond would become the first English player, male or female, to get their hands on a RWC trophy.
“[It was] amazing, absolutely amazing. Hard to describe it really. It was huge,” Almond added.
“I went back to England in 2010 and watched when New Zealand won that final. And their cup was presented to them on the pitch and they had fireworks and a big crowd and it was amazing.
“But I remember thinking it was just the same feeling when we were given the World Cup. We didn’t even stand on a podium, we just walked through and someone gave us the cup, and there was about a few thousand people there. It was totally different, but the feeling was exactly the same.”
Farah Palmer, New Zealand 1998
New Zealand had not sent a team to Edinburgh in 1994 so the squad that travelled to Amsterdam four years later did so with a drive to avenge the semi-final defeat to the USA and win a first RWC.
“We wanted to maybe seek revenge for the loss that our team had experienced in 1991,” captain Farah Palmer said.
“We were always highly motivated to try and win. We’ve always had that mentality.”
Palmer had been a Black Fern for less than two years by the time RWC 1998 kicked off, and recalled modestly that it had come as a surprise to be asked to captain the team.
But she proved a wise choice, leading her side to victories against Germany, Scotland, Spain and England to set up a final against the only team to have beaten them on the RWC stage at that point — the USA.
New Zealand proved too strong in Amsterdam as Vanessa Cootes ran in four of her side’s eight tries in a 44-12 victory.
“I do remember receiving the cup and I was like, ‘what do I do with this thing? I’m not sure what to do with this thing’,” Palmer admitted.
“I kissed it, and the camera seemed to love that, so I think there are a few shots of me kissing the cup. We were all just [thinking] ‘is this happening?’”
She added: “It was really cool and my life changed as a result, and I am really grateful for that. Every now and then I find myself getting a feeling of ‘this is bigger than just me’.”
Farah Palmer, New Zealand 2002
Palmer was again captain in 2002 when, as champions, New Zealand beat Germany, Australia and France to set up the first of a trilogy of finals against England.
Tries from Monique Hirovanaa and Cheryl Waaka helped to secure a 19-9 win for the Black Ferns, who became the first women’s team to successfully defend their RWC crown.
“In 2002 everybody expected us to win, so [there was] a lot more pressure, we knew it was going to be much more intense and it was,” Palmer said.
“There were a few moments of feeling, ‘oh gosh, can we do this? Can we do this?’
“We would be playing CDs and I remember asking if I could borrow a CD player on the bus [ride to the final] because I felt like I was going to have a panic attack trying to keep it all inside.
“It was just a feeling of real satisfaction [at the final whistle] because of the closeness of the game.”
Palmer added: “It was really cool to have my mum there in 2002. She’d never left New Zealand, so that was really cool.”
Farah Palmer, New Zealand 2006
Although New Zealand had won the RWC 2002 final in Barcelona by 10 points, Palmer and her team-mates had felt in control of the match throughout.
That was not the case in Edmonton, Canada four years later where a 25-17 victory over England was confirmed only by Amiria Rule’s try deep into injury-time.
“2006 felt like, ‘shoot, we could lose this game’, right up until the last minute,” Palmer said.
“I might have been at the bottom of a ruck somewhere so I had no idea where the ball was. I was kind of thinking, ‘oh my gosh, is this going to be it?’
“And when I got out of the ruck Amiria was running down the other side of the field and smashed the full-back out of the way and scored, and that was really satisfying because I knew that would be my last ever game for the Black Ferns.”
Palmer retired from international rugby following the final at Commonwealth Stadium having never lost a RWC match.
“I wanted to go out on a high, of course everybody does, and that was just a storybook ending to my time in the black jersey really,” she added.
“I was just completely spent. I’d managed to hold my body together for one more year, put other parts of my life on hold and I just felt I had nothing more to give to the team.”
Melissa Ruscoe, New Zealand 2010
The task of leading New Zealand into the next RWC fell to Melissa Ruscoe, a former international footballer who had made a place in the Black Ferns’ back-row her own.
Hosts England again provided the opposition in the showpiece match, at a packed Stoop in London, but the actions of the vociferous home support might just have backfired.
“I remember going to start the Haka after the anthems and ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ started up,” Ruscoe said.
“We pride ourselves on what we do and the Haka means a huge amount and to then have the crowd start singing that, again it just gave us another little one or two per cent in our determination to get over the line.”
The Black Ferns were made to dig deep for victory, with Ruscoe one of three players sent to the sin-bin, but Kelly Brazier’s first-half try helped see them home in their captain’s final test.
“To be able to actually lift that trophy knowing that you’d essentially created history by being part of a pretty special team, to work towards that and uphold that legacy of the Black Ferns was relieving at first,” Ruscoe explained.
“Then to have that team and that coaching staff and your family support there was pretty awesome. To hold that trophy at the end and share that with players that had just started their career and players that were finishing. It was pretty awesome.
“It’s amazing to sit here and think about it and go, you’re a world champion and will always be. That’s pretty awesome.”
Katy Daley-Mclean, England 2014
England’s run of final heartbreak would come to an end in Paris in 2014. Canada, who had drawn 13-13 against the Red Roses in the pool stage, awaited them in the showpiece match at Stade Jean-Bouin.
Danielle Waterman and Emily Scarratt scored tries in either half while the latter also added 11 points with the boot to seal a 21-9 victory that earned England a second title.
Scarratt’s try came with less than seven minutes remaining in Paris, and gave captain Katy Daley-Mclean a chance to get used to the feeling of being a RWC winner.
“Probably the last three, four minutes was just an opportunity, really, to enjoy it and just think that we had put it to bed,” she said.
“For me, that game and that win wasn’t just about us. It wasn’t just about that group of people and that group of staff.
“It was England rugby as a whole, it was all the women that had come before us, that had lost in World Cup finals, that had been there and got so close but never had an opportunity to lift the trophy.
“And that for me was really, really special to be able to dedicate our win to them.”
Mclean knew what it meant to English rugby to finally get over the line. The fly-half had been a non-playing reserve in Canada in 2006 and played against New Zealand in 2010.
“It was amazing. The overriding [feeling] was relief but just a massive sense of pride,” Daley-Mclean added.
Fiao’o Faamausili, New Zealand 2017
Having been knocked out of RWC 2014 title contention by Ireland, New Zealand arrived in the Emerald Isle three years later determined to become world champions for a fifth time.
Not that captain Fiao’o Faamausili felt under any extra pressure ahead of the final in Belfast, which would once again be played against England.
“As a captain I was quite calm, pretty excited,” she said of a tournament during which she became the first Black Ferns player to reach 50 caps. “Our game plan had worked out. We’d won every game to get to the final so I was pretty calm and really excited.”
England led 17-10 at half-time at Kingspan Stadium but that belief in their game plan ensured that no one inside the Black Ferns changing room panicked.
New Zealand’s faith in their own abilities was rewarded in the second half with five tries, a 42-31 victory and a fifth RWC title.
Faamausili said: “I’ve been there with the World Cup a few times but just the feeling of holding it with your peers beside you and everyone who creates it, especially with the girls back home, the ones that couldn’t come to the World Cup and the ones that have won and lifted that trophy beforehand.
“For me to lift that trophy amongst my peers that have worked extremely hard was just an exciting experience. It’s hard to explain because it’s one of those you never thought you’d do.”