Paul Nelson reports on the first game in the women's rugby World Cup
THERE was no fanfare, no marching band and no crowd worthy of the name.
But none of the 100 or so spectators, a mixture of the curious, the commissioned, and the committed, who saw the glint in Debbie Chase's eyes as she led her team-mates in the haka at Cardiff will ever forget the moment which marked the start of the first women's World Cup.
The sight of 15 women performing the traditional Maori tribal dance, a ritual challenge which for centuries has remained the preserve of men, will live long in the memory. It was slick, done with conviction and it said in a more eloquent manner than any words could that the women's game has arrived. The New Zealand team were every bit as convincing over the next 80 minutes, as they saw off impressively a stubborn Canadian side.
Chase, a free spirit who lists her occupation as bass player and has credentials in half a dozen sports, including rugby league, scored two tries as a result of the sort of balanced running in the centre that brought back memories of her male Maori counterpart, Steve Pokere.
Outside her, Helen Mahon, a pacey wing, ran in a hat-trick of tries, two from the tactical kicking of Jacqui Apiata, the fly-half.
The impressive back division was beautifully set up by Anna Richards, a scrum-half from Auckland who is a natural all-round athlete with a useful service and a devastating swerve.
The early moments of the game were enough to convince even the most hardened sceptic that this was a legitimate form of rugby in its own right.
There was a bite to the tackle and a good deal of vigour up front. Several times the All Black forwards showed the same indiscriminate footwork in their rucking as their more famous counterparts, and a number of times the Canadians were left needing treatment. Although the fierceness of the physical exchanges surprised many unfamiliar with the game at the Glamorgan Wanderers ground, the players made light of it.
``I wouldn't say it was a dirty game,'' Ruth Hellerud-Brown, the Canadian captain, said. ``I've played in much worse. The most important thing was that there was no hair-pulling and stuff like that going on; we can take the boots.''
Hellerud-Brown's side stuck to their guns throughout, even though it was clear by half-time, when they trailed 16-0, that there was no way back.
Mahon had completed her hat-trick and Chase had scored the first of her tries, and had the New Zealanders had a decent place kicker they would have been even further out of sight. Neither Ross, their chunky fullback who came into the line with real punch, and on occasions a Campese hitch-kick, nor Chase had the power to succeed with any one of eight kicks at goal.
The lack of kicking ability, both from ground and the hand, is one of the glaring differences from the men's game. But, as many long-suffering supporters would suspect, it improves the game as a spectacle. Once the purist has stopped tut-tutting over the kicks to touch that fall short, he is impressed by the amount of running this produces once hoofing the ball into touch is no longer an option.
The New Zealanders look a good bet to make the final on the Cardiff ground a week today. Among the teams they are likely to meet are England, who finally wore down a determined Spanish defence to win 12-0 at St Helens, Swansea, with tries from Stennet, Williets and Burns; France, who trounced Japan 62-0; and the United States, who beat the Netherlands 7-0.
Even if the opening day's play had not been so compelling, the World Cup is already a significant triumph for its organizers and for the women's game. Despite a desperate lack of funds the tournament has no sponsor and the regrettable sniping of men who see the game's development as an intrusion into their territory, the tournament has brought together 12 teams from around the globe on shoestring.
For some, the sacrifices have been enormous. The team from the Soviet Union were still arriving in dribs and drabs yesterday, with no money, little food and supplies of champagne, caviar and vodka with which to barter for the basic necessities.
Copyright (C) The Sunday Times, 1991
"Different gender but don't call these All Blacks tender; Rugby Union." Sunday Times [London, England] 7 Apr. 1991.