Blazing a trail for the women's game
August 27, 2010
Gill Burns was one of womens' rugby's pioneers and in 1991 the landscape was very different to the one she oversees today © Getty Images
The Women's Rugby World Cup currently underway may be professionally organised and marketed, but in one important respect - having the teams based at the University of Surrey campus - it represents a throwback to the first ever tournament, played in Wales in 1991.
Gill Burns, then an England player, now president of the RFUW and a member of Sky's commentary team for the tournament, remembers the parallel role played by the South Glamorgan Institute (now University of Wales Institute, Cardiff) campus: "There was a family feel which came from having all the teams on a campus - while we stayed in a hotel we trained at the village".
There were also 12 teams, the prodigious Anna Richards was even then a member of the New Zealand squad, and England started with the same high hopes as in 2010, but beyond that the similarities are limited.
Certainly none of the present England squad, highly committed as they are, will have had to make the make the same contribution as some of their predecessors of 1991. Hooker Sue Dorrington was a member of the four-strong organising committee chaired by Deborah Griffin, nowadays chair of the RFUW and an RFU council member. Their responsibilities ran beyond administration - they had put up their houses as security against losses, no small risk for a tournament that, as a document in the current exhibition at The World Rugby Museum at Twickenham shows, projected income of £19,117 and costs of £83,521, aiming to make up the difference through sponsorship. Centre Sam Robson ran the merchandising from her home address in Walthamstow.
"That was typical of the early days. If you want something done, you had to do it yourself," Burns said. She recalls that when she wanted to break new ground by having an England match played in the north, she had to organise it herself.
Nor did they know very much about the opposition: "Nowadays every opposing team and player has been analysed. Then we had no idea what to expect. We knew Wales and we had the occasional game against France, but that was it."
And most would have acknowledged that they were still learning about rugby: "Few of us would have thought of ourselves primarily as rugby players. Most of us had played other sports. I'd played a number of sports and was introduced to rugby after a hockey match. I scored a few goals and knocked a couple of the opposing players over. They said I'd make a good rugby player. I thought they were joking, but it turned out that they were completely serious. They were students at Liverpool Polytechnic, as it then was, and played rugby themselves. I took them up on the suggestion." Within a year she was playing for England.
In that environment England outside-half Karen Almond stood out: "She was slight but quick. She had great skills, was an excellent reader of the game and she won a lot of praise from male rugby writers, particularly when she was captain when we won in 1994."
But the team who won most notice in the early stages of the competition were the Soviet Union. They had arrived with no money, but their luggage included five giant cases of vodka. Customs officers raided their quarters when it was reported they were selling vodka and caviar but, it was reported, it proved 'almost impossible to break the language barrier'. A gift for commerce was certainly evident at their match against the Netherlands at Llanharan, where reserve players were reported to be doing a decent trade in dolls and other souvenirs, but this was a matter of necessity, since they were so short of money that they were going short of food. When this became known they were flooded with offers of hospitality and support.
Goodwill, though, was not sufficient to make them competitive. They went down 28-0 to the Dutch and 46-0 to the USA, who then defeated New Zealand 7-0 in the semi-final, qualifying to meet England in the final on April 14 at the Arms Park. England's opening match, against Spain at Swansea, had been attended by a crowd of 47 - in part because the gates of the St Helen's ground were opened only five minutes before kick-off.
They then struggled against Italy, trailing 9-5 at half-time. Burns, rested as England fielded a much-changed team, remembers: "It was really muddy and quite a battle. We had injuries and Nicki Ponsford, who was a hooker, had to play the whole match at loose head. She did really well." Wing Cheryl Stennett's second-half hat-trick took them through to the semi-finals, where they beat France - Burns and wing Debbie Francis scoring the tries.
As their male counterparts were to do in their tournament later in the year, England fell short in the final. Burns remembers: "It wasn't that the Americans were bigger and stronger, although they had a couple of big locks who became known as the 'locks from hell' and became mini-celebrities. They were simply much more experienced and had more game sense. We were pretty naïve - on one occasion we gave them the ball back quickly for a line-out and they threw in and scored."
This was not surprising. The American women's game, assisted in part by the Title IX equal rights legislation, dated back to 1972 - the year in which Title IX was enacted. They had 162 clubs, 3000 players and fielded veterans like outside-half Chris Harju, a 33-year-old critical care nurse whose first-half penalty began the American comeback after Burns had given England the lead with two early kicks.
England still led 6-3 at half-time, but the Americans took control after the break. Flanker Clare Godwin rounded off a passing move, then went over untouched after that quick line-out. Scrum-half Patty Connell also crossed, with Harju adding two conversions. Almond told the press: "We played our best, but our best was not good enough. We lost to the better side."
It was a good year for American women in team sports - later in 1991 they also won the first women's football World Cup, staged in China.
A further difference from 2010 was that the tournament struggled to attract spectators. Griffin described it as "a media rather than a spectator event". Only 2,000 - only a third of the number they had hoped for - attended the final, but any risk to the organisers ended when the RFU made up the deficit.