Chris Thau charts the popularity of women's rugby and the steps it is taking to win even more friends
England's 40-0 victory over Sweden in Waterloo at the weekend was another landmark in the short history of the women's game in Europe.
The women's international, sponsored by Chelsfield plc, was part of an international schedule agreed at a preliminary meeting of the representatives from European countries last April.
The meeting, attended by delegates from Britain, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Spain has decided to form an international women's confederation similar to the International Rugby Board to coordinate and promote the women's game worldwide. The first meeting of the newly-formed body is scheduled for this month in Paris.
The conference was organized during the first European women's cup in Bourg-en-Bresse in France. French women beat Great Britain 8-6 in a closely fought contest to win the first tournament. France is the leading European nation, but both the US and Canada have strong teams and they would be expected to join the WIRB.
One of the first decisions of the WIRB was to organize a second European tournament in England in 1991, the year of the men's second world cup. Naturally the glamour and the media build-up surrounding the senior event would help the publicity of the women's game.
The French have about 30 clubs organized since 1972 on a league system. The French women's federation is affiliated to the FFR and is recognized by the French sports ministry, therefore receiving a subsidy from the Government.
During the last five years the women's game has soared in popularity in Britain. There are more than 60 teams, mainly in England and Wales, and the league structure has operated since 1985.
A five-year development plan has been devised to increase the number of players, raise the playing standards and encourage more women, former players to become involved in administration, refereeing and coaching. The plan is to be submitted to the Sports Council by the new WRFU coaching and development officer, Carol Isherwood.
Until last season, Miss Isherwood was both the secretary of the WRFU and, as a tireless loose forward, the captain of both England and Great Britain.
Sidelined by injury, she has been replaced by Wales's Carolyn Mann as the WRFU secretary and by Karen Almond as the England captain repectively. Karen Almond, a product of Loughborough University, the cradle of women's rugby in Britain, is a gifted stand off half and she was the leading try scorer in the game against Sweden with 16 points (two tries and four conversions).
Miss Almond, a PE teacher in Potters Bar, near London, cherished the occasion though according to her, she never regarded herself as a natural leader.
She believes that women's rugby is still facing an uphill struggle in its attempt to establish itself and cut through prejudice and preconceived ideas.
``It will take a long time before the women's game will lose its present image as a kind of Cinderella sport,'' Miss Almond said.
``But every time we play somewhere new we make new inroads.
``A lot of the men spectators at Waterloo never saw women play before. To their credit, they were full of praise after the game. Even the president of the Waterloo Rugby Club was heard saying that he would support the formation of a women team within the club. I have to admit that we encountered the same reluctance from ordinary members when we joined Wasps. However, nowadays we are accepted as just another team of the club.''
"Breaking clear of the Cinderella image; Women's rugby." Times [London, England] 18 Oct. 1988.