Rugby World Cup 2021 is set to be the biggest women’s rugby tournament yet. 12 teams will compete in some of rugby’s biggest stadiums, with supporters travelling from across the world and fans at home able to watch the matches live.

It should also be the 30th anniversary of the first ever women’s Rugby World Cup, that took place in 1991, had the COVID-19 pandemic not moved the tournament to this year. 

The tournament, which has since been recognised by World Rugby as the inaugural women’s Rugby World Cup, was organised by four women with little budget and just one idea: To bring national rugby teams from across the world to the UK to compete across nine days.

“We really wanted to celebrate it being 30 years, but of course with the pandemic and everything else, it didn't really get done,” Deborah Griffin, one of four trailblazing women who organised and delivered the tournament, said.

The groundbreaking idea hatched at Richmond rugby club

“Everybody has a different memory about where the idea came from,” Griffin, who now works for the University of Cambridge, added. 

“Richmond had toured New Zealand in 1989, and obviously we got to know some of the teams in Canterbury and Christchurch, and they were talking about having a club tournament there. I think also there was the idea of a European women's rugby tournament, and we were looking to host that. So there was that happening. 

“But if you think back, the men had only just had one World Cup, which was in 1987. So we just thought, well, why don't we have one?”

Griffin was press officer at the Women’s Rugby Football Union at the time and partnered with Susan Dorrington, Mary Forsyth, and Alice Cooper to work out how they could deliver the tournament with little money or resource, while also maintaining their young careers. 

Over early morning meetings, late nights and weekends of working out every last detail, the group hatched a plan and soon sent invitations to nations to take part in the championship. 

But before the age of social media and emails, it was hard to work out which unions even had women’s teams. “It was all done by fax because there was no email or anything like that. 

“We knew some nations; we knew the USA and Canada, and we knew France. We had played Spain, the Netherlands and Sweden. So we had those. But we literally ended up writing to different rugby unions asking them whether they had had a female team.”

Griffin has kept hold of the fax correspondence with the other nations for over thirty years, but the ink has slowly vanished. “I’ve got a file of blank pages,” she said with a laugh. 

Finding the best host city 

With teams keen to take part, Cardiff was soon chosen as the host city. “We set out what the criteria were for where we wanted to host,” Griffin recalled. 

“We had to use student accommodation, so it had to be a place with a lot of student accommodation. We obviously wanted it to be in an area where rugby was really embedded in it. 

“I went to three different places actually: I went up to Leicester and I met with Leicester, I went to Bristol, and met with Bristol, and I went to Cardiff. 

“Cardiff at the time was just starting to look at sport tourism. And they were very, very keen. They came in and offered us the use of the National Sports Centre in Cardiff for accommodation for the organisers, and offered to host the closing dinner and the opening ceremony. 

“And, of course, there were a lot of rugby-playing people there. So all in all, it was really their positivity towards it that led us to go there because obviously we were all still working, we were young and had no money.”

Then came a major hurdle. Despite using a sponsorship agency to help raise funds, the foursome had not been able to raise the money they needed to be able to pay for all the teams’ accommodation. 

Two months before the tournament, Griffin and her co-organisers sheepishly wrote to the unions to tell them they hadn’t been able to secure the funding. 

“We wrote to them and said, ‘Look, we're really sorry, we can't pay for the accommodation, we're probably going to have to cancel’. And they all wrote back and said ‘no, no, we're still coming!’ So the team's paid for virtually everything themselves,” Griffin explained.

A poignant moment in women’s rugby history

Once there, the nine-day tournament commenced with the opening ceremony the first time so many women’s rugby nations had been under the same roof. 

The hard work was just about to begin, but for that night, there was celebration for the game and passion that had brought them all together. 

“It was really poignant,” Griffin says with a smile. “There was a Welsh guard and a band playing. The teams all marched in, some of them very smartly dressed and some of them in tracksuits. I remember Italy being in these white and blue tracksuits. There were speeches and the whole thing was lovely.”

There was local support for the tournament, as clubs across South Wales opened their doors to host matches and club members cheered along the touchline, but there was not any live broadcast interest, and little pick-up from national media. 

The Welsh Rugby Union provided referees for the tournament, clubs offered what they could, and players from different nations pulled together to make ends meet. 

The Soviet Union team’s battle with HMRC

There are stories from everyone involved about how this tournament took place, but the most remarkable is the plight of the Soviet Union team. 

Unable to take money out of their country, the team arrived with arms full of vodka, Russian dolls, caviar and cucumbers to haggle their way through the tournament. 

Their plan was to sell the goods on the streets of Cardiff, only for HMRC to knock on their door at the Cardiff Institute of Higher Education to tell them they could not.

A report in The Guardian from 1991 explains that no charges were brought against the team who left the tournament without scoring a single point. 

“The women were said to have travelled through Heathrow airport’s green channel with five 5ft cases of liquor, but at South Glamorgan Institute yesterday customs investigators found it almost impossible to break the language barrier and eventually left,” the report read.

“It is understood that no charges will be brought against the team, who had only enough money for their air fares and hoped to barter their goods for food during the week-long tournament in South Wales.”

Dorrington, one of the organisers, says the team managed to get by thanks to donations from the local community. 

“The Cardiff city and community came out in force,” Dorrington said in an interview with England Rugby. “A local store gave them some jerseys, another gave them some clothes and companies gave them money to pay for their accommodation. A big pie factory even delivered pies to the university dorm that they were staying in.”

More hurdles for the organisers

After the pool stages, where each team played two games in five days, the semi-finals and finals were looming. For England, another hurdle was fast approaching. “Halfway through the World Cup the hotel realised that they had a double booking,” said Dorrington.

“We’re three days from the final and we’re looking for bed and breakfasts but they allowed us to sleep in sleeping bags in the conference room, it was just a nightmare.”

The team bedded down in sleeping bags in the hotel’s conference room and prepared for the semi-final. 

On 14 April 1991, the final was held in Cardiff Arms Park in front of an estimated 3,000 fans, and the USA came away the victors with a 19-6 win against England.

“I don’t know how many people we had at the final,” Griffin said. “I was running around like a nutcase organising stuff. I never stopped to look and enjoy it.” 

Griffin was never an international rugby player herself but managed to successfully run the tournament just five months after giving birth to her daughter Victoria. 

“I don't think we slept that week, because we were having to produce the programmes overnight,” she said. 

“We were having to get the team-sheets, type them up, and send them to the printer for the next day. And deal with all the other issues that were going on.”

The event is best summarised by David Hands, rugby correspondent for The Times in 1991: “The event, which reached its climax on Sunday in Cardiff when the United States beat England 19-6 in the final, has been run on a shoestring, with none of the trappings of the modern men's game no big sponsors, no back-up, limited accommodation, but huge reserves of enthusiasm and considerable organisational skill.

"It was a tournament run for players by players who were prepared to risk their own money to bring their particular dream to fruition, and in that sense has taken rugby back to its original and purest roots.”

"There are still things to do"

Fast forward 31 years and Griffin is planning her trip to New Zealand to watch this year’s Rugby World Cup following her retirement at the end of September. 

“I’m still an RFU council member and World Rugby council rep,” she said. “In fact, I’ve managed to pick up a couple more committees for next year.” The hard work never stops. 

So what keeps her motivated? “I'm inspired by the younger people coming through, who now see a future for them in rugby,” she said. 

“You see all the people who have become coaches and referees, and the fact that women are more and more embedded in the game of rugby. It’s great. 

“But there's still more to do and structures to build and things like that. So women’s rugby is still exciting, because there's still things to do.”

After this year’s World Cup, focus will turn to the 2025 tournament, which England will host for the first time since 2010. England Rugby has set itself the target of selling out Twickenham Stadium for the final. 

“It's a really good aim to have,” Griffin said. “I think if we build the Six Nations and internationals every year on the premise of slowly building that fan base, it is achievable.”