Rugby World Cup 1991 30th anniversary: Today’s players reflect on women’s rugby pioneers

Three decades on from the inaugural women’s Rugby World Cup, we talk to three current Women’s Six Nations players about what those early tournaments mean to them.

France captain Gaëlle Hermet believes the current generation of players “owe it” to the pioneers of international women’s rugby to keep growing the game.

This week marks the 30th anniversary of the inaugural women’s Rugby World Cup, which was organised by four members of Richmond WRFC and took place between 6-14 April, 1991.

Deborah Griffin, Alice Cooper, Sue Dorrington and Mary Forsyth faced myriad challenges as they sought to bring together 12 national teams from as far afield as Canada, the USA, New Zealand and USSR in South Wales.

France, who had contested the first women’s test match in 1982, made it to the semi-finals at Cardiff Arms Park, where they lost 13-0 to England.

Hermet, whose side has a rest weekend having opened their Women’s Six Nations 2021 campaign with a 53-0 defeat of Wales, says the squad is motivated by the feats of those who went before them.

“We owe it to the women who played in those early championships and allowed rugby to become what it has become,” she said. “Their history is very important. 

“We try to educate the new players because this is an important legacy. We can look back and we can look to the future, we can look where we came from, we will look where we are today and think about our hopes for the future. 

“So, they are a source of inspiration for us, and where we are today was inspired by the women who played in the early championships.”

Understanding history

Ireland did not make their women’s test debut until 1993, and therefore did not feature at the inaugural women’s Rugby World Cup.

However, like Hermet, centre Sene Naoupu and her current Ireland team-mates share a relationship with what has gone before.

“We're connected with our history of the women's game here, and certainly some of the players that were involved in the very first Irish team in 1993 playing Scotland away,” Naoupu told World Rugby. 

“We make sure that the history is known to us as part of the archetype that the jersey represents, where it came from and all the hard work and meaning that's gone into it over the decades. 

“And, certainly then where we fit into that as a team, and as an archetype for both present and future, and where we hope to leave our legacy.”

‘All we can say is thank you’

However a lack of media coverage during those early years of international women’s rugby means that many young players have grown up unaware of the events and people that shaped the modern game.

“Say, 10 years ago, women growing up in rugby didn't know who was playing because there was nothing publicised, nothing on social media,” Wales winger Jasmine Joyce said. “Now it's obviously got a lot bigger, with games on BBC iPlayer and the BBC.

“We’ve got Facebook Live streams and there's a lot more media and publicity around us as individuals and the journeys we go on. Which I think is great because people can then relate to us and know us better… as a person rather than just a player.”

Joyce got an insight into the pioneering spirit that drove women’s rugby through the 1980s and 1990s when she was called up to the Wales senior squad for the first time.

World Rugby Hall of Fame inductee Liza Burgess was a national team coach at the time, and having taken her seat on the Welsh Rugby Union board at the end of last year, she remains an inspiration and role model for the current generation.

“I used to be really scared of her [although] she was a lovely person,” Joyce admitted. 

“She's done a huge amount for our game, huge amounts for sport and to be on the board that's just a massive achievement for her. And, I know she's really pushing for us as women and as women in sport and rugby. 

“So, yeah, she's done a tremendous amount for the game, and I know she's continuing to do that. All we can say is thank you to her, and as a player, she was phenomenal.”

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