A Beginner’s Guide to Women’s Rugby Union

With the announcement that the first two matches of England’s Autumn International campaign will be broadcast on the RFUTV YouTube Channel, we thought this would be a great time to run a beginner’s guide to Women’s Rugby Union on The Sportist.  Which is pretty good news for me because, despite being a pretty decent fan of the sport as a whole, my own understanding of the women’s game has been shamefully limited.  Time for a bit of an education.

The Basics

Helpfully, women’s rugby union is an absolutely identical sport to the men’s game.  Rules, pitch size, ball size, and positions are exactly the same (Just with added ovaries-Ed.) For the entirely uninitiated, this pitches two teams of fifteen players organised into Front (numbers 1 through 8, also comprising the scrum) and Back (numbers 9 through 15) divisions against one another in a sport where the aim is to get the ball over the opponent’s try line either through grounding the ball whilst in full control (a try) or kicking through the goalposts from a penalty or drop goal situation.  Tries are awarded 5 points, drop kicks and penalties 3 and conversions 2.  The ball can only be passed backwards.  Contact is full – and often brutal.

The History

Despite its relatively low public profile, women’s rugby union actually enjoys a long and well-established history, albeit not without its own issues.  The game was certainly played by women as early as the late 19th Century – indeed, a women’s team had been due to tour New Zealand in 1891 before public outcry put paid to that particular tour, while in the 1921 an Australian league game drew a crowd of 30,000 spectators before, again, public and authoritative pressure ended the spectacle.  A women’s league actually ran in Australia between 1930 and the outbreak of the Second World War, before the game re-emerged in a formal capacity in the 1960s with women’s teams forming in many European universities.  With the formation of the Women’s Rugby Football Union in the early 1980s and the formalisation of the US’ Eagles team in 1990, the game’s official status was well in place.

The women’s game is now formally recognised and governed by the IRB who administer both the women’s Rugby World Cup and women’s Rugby World Sevens tournaments.

Current Rankings

Despite its official recognition, the IRB somewhat controversially fails to provide official test rankings in the international women’s game, relying on World Cup placings to reflect international standings.  The French rugby statistician Serge Piquet produces a regularly updated series of unofficial rankings, which currently list the world’s top 10 teams as:

  1. England
  2. New Zealand
  3. France
  4. Ireland
  5. Wales
  6. Canada
  7. Italy
  8. Scotland
  9. United States
  10. Spain

The World Cup is currently held by New Zealand, who defeated England 13-10 in the 2010 final, with Australia taking third place over France.

The Future

Having seen gender imbalance play a key part in the refusal by the IOC to readmit rugby to Olympic competition in the early 2000s, the 2016 Olympic Games will see women’s 7s included alongside men’s 7s in the full Olympic programme in Rio.  With this year’s launch of a formal IRB Rugby World Sevens World Series in the women’s game and world record crowds at the 2010 World Cup, as well as the increased publicising of the game, the future looks bright.  Increased coverage and awareness is needed – as it is across the breadth of women’s competitive sport – but unlike with some sports, the gap does not appear insurmountable.  Increased competition at university level and in traditional development grounds for the men’s game are placing women’s rugby union on an encouragingly similar level to the men’s discipline.


Star Players

  • Michaela Staniford – England – Wing/Centre

The youngest England international, at just 17 when she made her debut in 2005, Michaela Staniford currently has 51 caps to her name with a return of 22 tries to date.  As captain of England Women’s 7s team as well, Staniford the Wasps star is a true leading light of the England team

  • Kelly Brazier – New Zealand – Utility Back (Flyhalf/Centre/Fullback)

At 22 years of age, Brazier is young to have been top scorer in a World Cup tournament, yet this is the mantle she returned in the 2010 World Cup where her 48 points helped lead the Black Ferns to the title.  Having this month set the record for individual points scored in a New Zealand women’s representative match with a terrifying 45 racked up in Otago Spirit’s 85-5 victory over Hawkes Bay, Brazier remains one of the women’s game’s most destructive talents.

  • Emily Scarratt – England – Centre

The ‘other half’ of England’s centre partnership, Emily Scarratt’s 40 caps at the tender age of 22 reflect a genuine talent of the international game.  A full cap at 18 years old, rugby union wasn’t even Scarratt’s first taste of international sport having represented England at rounders previously, but her attacking thrusts have demonstrated her immense ability on the rugby field – a talent marked by 170 points in full internationals to date, including 24 tries.

  • Heather Moyse – Canada – Fullback

While her main sporting activity may be away from the Rugby field these days, the 34 year old Canadian former World Cup tournament all-star is well worth a mention when discussions of international women’s rugby arise.  First, some comparison points: Sarah Storey, W. G. Grace, Ian Botham, Michael Jordan.  Okay, the last one’s a bit of a joke, but the others are all leading examples of those who have taken more than one sport by the scruff of the neck.  Heather Moyse belongs comfortably along such illustrious company – not only did she end the 2010 Rugby World Cup as joint-leading try scorer; she is also an Olympic gold medallist in the 2-woman bobsleigh and an international track cyclist for Canada.  What a woman.

England women kick off their Autumn International campaign against France on November 3rd.  Tickets are available for £10 for adults and £5 for under 16s from Ticketmaster.  For those who fancy it, December 1st sees England play New Zealand at Twickenham immediately after the conclusion of the men’s game.  And the best news – it’s free entry for the women’s game!


Image from http://www.independent.co.uk/sport/rugby/rugby-union (thanks!)


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