Vodka, Monsters and a disputed third place: the 1991 Women’s Rugby World Cup

The first Women’s Rugby World Cup could easily not have occurred.  The International Rugby Board refused to recognise the tournament, 600 potential sponsors were consulted with not a single one interested in supporting the event, and a number of unions refused sponsorship for their national women’s teams, who then had to pay their own way.  In spite of the odds, the women persevered and the participating nations came together in Wales from 6-14 April 1991 to show the world that rugby was not exclusively a sport for men.

England's Gill Burns on Women's Rugby World Cup programme 1991.

England’s Gill Burns on the cover of the official tournament programme.

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New Zealand’s Second Lieutenant Kaipara

A member of the inaugural New Zealand Maori team of 1910, Autini Pitara Kaipara was described by his peers as an outstanding rugby footballer.  Leaving behind rugby for the battlefields of Europe in 1914, Kaipara gave his life for his country at Passchendaele on the 4th of August 1917.

Kaipara portrait, Auckland Weekly News 1917 - No known copyright restrictions

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Lest We Forget – Edgar Roberts Mobbs (England), 31/07/1917


Edgar Roberts Mobbs was born in Northampton.  He was one of six children of Oliver Linnel Mobbs and his wife Elizabeth Anne.  His father was an engineer and his mother came from a background in shoemaking, for which Northampton was famous.

Edgar’s education was at Bedford Modern School, where records show him as a modest scholar who was taken away early and put to work, being at one time a car salesman and later director of the Pytchley Auto Car Company.

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Lest We Forget – Arthur James Wilson (England), 31/07/1917


Photo courtesy of Glenalmond College

Arthur James Wilson was born in Newcastle upon Tyne, the son of Henry Bainbridge Wilson and his wife Emily Jane.  Henry was a wool, skin and hide broker, and Emily’s father was a master rope maker.  In all they had five children, of whom Arthur was the youngest.

From 1900 he spent four years at Glenalmond College in Perthshire, where he became a prefect and was a regular member of the rugby XV and of the cricket XI in his final two years.

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Passchendaele and the last moments of Edgar Mobbs, 31st July 1917

Mobbs, Edgar Roll of Honour

By capturing the village of Passchendaele, the British hoped to progress in the direction of the Belgian coast where the Allies might curtail the threat of the German U-boat.  After long deliberation Prime Minister Lloyd George agreed Field Marshal Haig’s plan and zero-hour was set for 3.50 am on the morning of the 31st July, after a fifteen-day four million shell bombardment.

Lieutenant Colonel Mobbs had made his battalion headquarters inside a waterlogged trench in advance of Hill 60, where Fin Todd had been shot two years earlier.  Further south Lieutenant Colonel Livesay and the New Zealand Division were forming up on the edge of the front line on the southern extremity of Messines Ridge.

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Ireland 2017 Women’s Rugby World Cup

The Women’s Rugby World Cup 2017 is around the corner, taking place in Belfast and Dublin from 9-26 August 2017.  The Irish Rugby Football Union was chosen to host the eighth Women’s tournament in May 2015 and looks set to deliver a phenomenal event.


The Women’s Rugby World Cup. Photo: Joe Bailey @FiveSix Photography / World Rugby.

With its beginnings as an invitational event in 1991 to one with a hefty qualification process, the Women’s Rugby World Cup has ingrained itself as a major international competition in the sporting calendar.  The importance of the tournament extends further than the event itself, with World Rugby explaining that the tournament ‘’is extending the reach of women’s rugby to new audiences, inspiring participation, interest and engagement.’’

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The Plight of the Northern Amateur

This work is based on cuttings in a scrapbook given to me in my capacity as archivist of Ashbrooke Sports Club in Sunderland, home of Sunderland RFC (founded 1873).  The origins of the scrapbook are uncertain but it seems to have been put together during the 1907/8 rugby season and covers most of the rugby related output in the Newcastle Evening Chronicle, Newcastle Journal and Sunderland Echo with occasional cuttings from the Northern Daily Mail, the Sunderland Football Echo and Athletics News.  The content, as with most media sport reporting, exhibits a mixture of fact and comment with two of the main commentators working under the pseudonyms of ‘Touch Judge’ in the Chronicle and ‘Argus’ in the Journal.  The subject matter of articles ranges from international rugby union to local junior games with an emphasis upon weekly local rugby in the old counties of Northumberland and Durham.

Historical Context

The scrapbook was put together at an interesting time in the development of rugby football in England and Wales.  Already the stronger Yorkshire and Lancashire clubs had broken away to form their own Northern Union (better known today as the Rugby League).  This professional game had been going since 1895 although it is clear from all the writing in the scrapbook that the breakaway union was still regarded as a close if errant member of the Rugby Union family.

As for what continued to operate as Rugby Union, there was a clear hierarchy of importance – a pyramid with a base of club games leading up through county and regional trials to internationals.  Within this structure, the county level carried much more weight than it was to do in the late twentieth century and early years of the current century.  In the counties’ pecking order, Northumberland and Durham County stood high – Durham in particular.  The Edwardian period encompassed the golden age of Durham County rugby although much of the county’s success may be attributable to the move of many stalwart players in Yorkshire and Lancashire into the professional league game.  In the union system, those considered most talented would represent the North in trial matches and, if chosen, would then appear for England in the annual internationals against Wales, Ireland and Scotland.  Durham County was far from an international backwater in this period.  The two major clubs in Hartlepool provided players for England during the 1907/8 season while many other sides, including Sunderland, produced England and Barbarian players around the same time.

In the wake of the breakaway of the Northern Union, the officials of the Rugby Football Union were keen to keep their game simple and amateur.  The regular format desired consisted of weekly friendly club matches and barely tolerated county knockout cup competitions.  The latter usually took place towards the end of the season.  For the keen amateur rugby player, the weekly bragging rights of the victor were considered reward enough and were added to by a locally recognised pecking order of strength reflected in the club’s annual fixture list. Despite general recognition of this structure, Northumberland and Durham rugby clubs were prepared to buck the trend and dabble with a league system at a variety of levels.

Union and Association

Before examining the evidence for Union league activity in the north east contained in the cuttings book, it is worth considering some why such a structure may have been attractive.  A major reason lies couched in the rise of association football or ‘the dribbling code’ as it was disparagingly referred to by one of the north east’s Edwardian rugby pundits.  In the Sunderland area, rugby football had proved dominant in the 1880s and the association club, formed in 1879 on the same south side of the River Wear as the rugby club, struggled prior to a move north of the river which helped it to gather impetus.  By the 1890s Sunderland AFC had won the league title three times and stood alongside Aston Villa as a dominant force in English football.  The effect on local rugby union in the late Victorian period seems to have been twofold.  The first was that it drew the rugby club into considering a change in codes on more than one occasion.  The second is its effect on public interest shown in the rugby games.  There was a considerable decline in gates towards the end of the Victorian period and on more than one occasion this was put down to an increased interest in and attendance at association matches.

The perceived advantage of a league system for rugby was that it would encourage larger crowds – human nature being to prefer visible competition and success.  At the same time it would focus players and give them a goal at which to aim.  From individual club’s point of view it could also bring in most welcome income.  What frightened the RFU was that such regular competition might encourage clubs to ‘buy their way’ to league success through lucrative signing on fees and  underhand payment of players; also that  clubs prepared to act in this manner would eventually follow many from Yorkshire and Lancashire by taking up the professional game.

Early Edwardian North East Union Leagues

‘In some parts of the country, leagues are not a new venture’, the writer noted.  ‘One such area is Durham County and its neighbour Northumberland where League football was in operation from the first years of the century and at junior club level lasted until the depression years of the thirties’. (Sunderland RFC Archive c.1980s)

Interest in a north east league structure can be traced back to the immediate aftermath of the divide of 1895.  In 1896, a junior club from South Shields, Westoe Wednesday, suggested a league structure.  The Sunderland club committee rejected this. In the following year, Northumberland club Wallsend proposed a joint Northumberland and Durham counties’ league.  A meeting was held and the clubs, including Sunderland, voted for rejection.  This was ‘on the ground that’ it was ‘a step in the direction of professionalism’.  In 1898, however, the Sunderland club committee accepted a third league proposal by six votes to one.  This league, for Durham County alone, would exist at both 1st XV and 2nd XV level.  In the words of the club secretary, the move to leagues was ‘quashed’ by the RFU.  Organisation of the leagues had clearly been at an advanced stage because the club was told by an RFU official to throw out its proposed fixtures and to ‘make the usual fixtures during the following season’.  At the end of the 1902/3 season, however, the secretary of Sunderland RFC noted triumphantly that the club had ended ‘second in the league table’ and that ‘since last season the Durham and Northumberland Union have installed an inter club Championship’.  This championship had ‘greatly increased the interest in the matches of the various clubs’.  He also reported that the 1st XV had played 19 games in the inter club league, had won 11 and drawn one, scoring 132 points for and 131 against.  He also noted that club finances had improved and would have been even better had it not been for the bad weather.  In an interesting final analysis he added three other favourable outcomes of the league games –

  1. Matches started more punctually.
  2. Matches were more keenly contested
  3. There was no difficulty in getting players to play on a regular basis

The club minutes for the 1903/4 season back up the continued existence of a league structure.  There are references to claiming points for cancelled matches and not playing league games on county days.  In 1904, Northumbrian side Old Novos claimed two points because Sunderland had cancelled a game.  A pristine copy of the league rules and regulations for the following season has also survived in the archives of Sunderland RFC. The league is disguised as ‘Durham and Northumberland Inter-County Club Championships’ and the regulations for the 1904/5 season stated that at least eight ‘home and home’ matches (presumably home and away) had to be played with two points for a win and one for a draw.  Positions in the championship table were awarded on a percentage win basis.

Having withdrawn its 2nd XV from its league in 1904, Sunderland RFC placed it back for the 1905/6 season.  In the 1906/7 season there are occasional references in the club’s minutes to the 1st XV, at least, remaining in some form of league system.

*to be continued in a second article later in the year.

About the Author: Keith Gregson is a Sunderland-based semi-retired freelance writer, historian and musician. He has written numerous books about the history of sport including ‘One Among Many’, ‘Sporting Ancestors’ and ‘Australia in Sunderland’. Details of his work can be found at and his books can be purchased from Amazon.

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