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Saturday, July 02, 2011

Barette - women's rugby 100 years ago

Frederic Humbert (of the Rugby Pioneers website) has uncovered a new picture of a very early women's rugby team, in this case from 1925. In practice it looks like this is a "barette" team - a form of rugby that was popular in France in the 1920s (you may remember a film from 1928 appeared here back in 2008).

Hunting around a bit, I've now unearthed the rules of this game - worth a look, especially with the proposed U13 rule changes that the RFUW are seeking to impose. Another French rugby website - - gives the following information:

At the end of the nineteenth century rugby is far more widely played in France than football, but even so children at many schools in Paris and the provinces did not play the game, but instead played a simplified game which was very similar: Barrette.

The "barette" was an was ovoid ball (like a rugby ball), consisting of a rubber bladder wrapped in leather and measuring about 30cm long and 20 wide. The sport was played on a field, or some other place big enough to allow the free movement of twenty to thirty players divided into two teams. It was possible to kick the barrette, or pick it up and carry it towards the opposing goal.

There were two methods of scoring - either a kick (sending the ball between two posts) or placing it between the posts. If a player failed to do either but instead placed behind the goal line outside the posts, they won an "advantage" and were entitled to a free kick at goal (these scoring rules are all but identical to early rugby rules).

What was special about this sport (compared to rugby, as played at the time) was that any contact or violent aggressive action is prohibited. An opponent could get in his way of the ball carrier, but not struggle with them. They just needed to touch the player carrying the barrette and shout "hit!" Play would then stop, and a  scrum would be formed. In summary, when created (in the 1880s) it was like rugby, but with less violence.

From its introduction it spread quickly. The first inter-school championship began in 1890 with three teams, eight the following year and 15 by 1892. The clubs appeared in the provinces with a growing membership. School children played almost every day, alongside their studies, work and family life, and the quality of play improved.

By the 1920s the game seems to have become an exclusively women's sport, with rules about contact relaxed (if the film clips are any evidence). National championships took place, but the sport never seems to have been played outside of France - and in the 1930s - 50 years after being introduced in schools - it seems to disappear.

What is fascinating is how much this reminds me of the U13 rule debate. The motivation - the creation of a simplified, less aggressive form of the game primarily for use in schools - is identical. The form of play - sort of glorified touch or tag - sounds very like what is being proposed today.

The interesting question is whether it worked, and the answer seems to be a qualified yes - there were more players playing a rugby-type game than there would otherwise have been BUT there is no evidence that Barette players moved in any measurable numbers into "proper" rugby. No true women's rugby develops (unlike in Australia and New Zealand 10 years later). Instead all that happens is that clubs are formed to enable players to carry on playing the simplified game into adulthood. The question is whether history will repeat itself 100 years later, and whether RFUW will consider the creation of lots of adult tag players to be a success.

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