"25 years ago to the day England Women played their very first international rugby match. On a spring day at Pontypool RFC in Wales, England’s first ever 22 female rugby players ran out against a Welsh team who were also enjoying their first ever taste of international rugby. Only a handful of spectators were there to witness this significant day in the history of the women’s game, but for England their first tentative footsteps into the international arena ended in success with a 22-4 victory.
The stars of that victory included names such as Nicola Ponsford, MBE, who is the current Acting Managing Director of the Rugby Football Union for Women (RFUW) and England Women’s Head of Performance, as well as Carol Isherwood, OBE, who is a RFUW Board Member and also holds a seat on the International Rugby Board (IRB) Committee.
“My abiding memory of that first ever international match was that it was an amazing experience but one where we were finding our feet,” said Ponsford, who started at hooker in that match. “We stayed in a youth hostel, and our match preparation included taking our walk and stretch on the swings in the park!
“The game itself was all a bit of a blur. It was much faster than we had played before. There was a lot of mauling and I seemed to be stuck in the middle of all of them. There were a few people watching, but mainly family and friends and a few interested spectators who seemed baffled that women were actually playing rugby. We also played in big, baggy white cotton shirts that we had to pay for.”
Since then England and the Women’s Game has come a long way. England have played 186 international test matches, including playing Wales 29 times and losing just one match against them in that 25 year period. That phenomenal record has continued for England who have since gone on to win 165 matches, draw two, and lose just 23 games. England have also won the Six Nations a record breaking eight times, including seven Grand Slams, since the tournament first began in 2003. Despite England’s impressive record they have surprisingly only won the Women’s Rugby World Cup once and that was in 1994, although England have come close on four occasions, making the final in 1991, 2002, 2006 and 2010. Ponsford, who went on to win 50 caps for England, was part of that historic 1994 winning side. England took the title by beating the USA 38-23 in the final in Edinburgh.
“Since being involved in the first ever game there have been many highlights but certainly winning the Rugby World Cup in 1994 ranks as one of my best memories, alongside helping to organise the first Women’s Rugby World Cup in 1991 and England hosting the 2010 Rugby World Cup which proved to be the most successful Women’s Rugby World Cup ever.”
The 2010 Rugby World Cup, hosted by the RFU, in London was certainly a landmark tournament for Women’s Rugby globally. The tournament broke new ground with record breaking broadcasting and media exposure, whilst pool matches were sold out and the final, at the Twickenham Stoop, witnessed the biggest ever crowd at a women’s XVs match of over 13,000 people.
Since then it has been non-stop for England and the RFUW and the RFU who are at the forefront of growing and developing the Women’s Game. England now regularly play their home games on the hallow turf of Twickenham Stadium, whilst live television coverage is becoming a regular occurrence.
And the enthusiasm is growing at the grass roots level of the game too with currently 13,645 women and girls playing rugby in England –that’s an increase of 87 percent since records began in 2004/05. Worldwide, Women's Rugby is one of the fastest-growing forms of the Game with over 200,000 registered women actively competing in XVs and Sevens and 800,000 women and girls participating in leisure rugby in all its forms.
With Rugby Sevens also now on the Olympic agenda, which the game making its debut in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games, the game is set to reach new heights. This season has seen the introduction of the IRB Women’s Sevens Challenge Cup with the worlds’ best Sevens teams competing over three tournaments, in Dubai, Hong Kong and London, alongside the men’s HSBC World Sevens Series, whilst next season the IRB are looking to introduce a new Women’s World Sevens Series.
Ponsford added: “The game has developed so much since I first became involved and it has developed only for the better. I was the first ever paid employee but now we have a wonderful, extremely talented team at Twickenham with massive support from the RFU, as well as the likes of Sport England, the English Institute of Sport and our various sponsors. Club level, there is now over 300 teams playing rugby in England and we hope that one day soon girls’ rugby will become a first choice sport in schools across the country.
“At the top level we have around 400 players in the England system. Although we have not won a world cup in 18 years I am confident that soon our time will come. We are also experiencing exciting times in Sevens Rugby too and I hope that in 2016 both the men and women’s Great Britain teams will be in fighting contention to win two gold medals.”
In recognition of this historic day the World Rugby Museum at Twickenham Stadium is hosting a special exhibition entitled England Women’s Rugby – A Continuing Success. The new display shows a range of objects that highlight the increasing success of both English and international Women’s Rugby. The display is located at the entrance to the museum exhibition area, and will run until July 2012."