Enniskillen, in County Fermanagh, Ireland, was the beginning of it all.
There, on the Royal Portora School ground rugby pitch in 1887, a woman played rugby for the first time. Well, officially, at least; it's the first time we have a formal record of a female playing rugby anywhere in the world.
The Story Behind The Beginning of Women’s Rugby
In the early days of female sport, women playing contact sports was seen socially as disrespectful, and sometimes incited a violent response from the public, as it did in 1881, when a number of women’s football matches in Scotland and England were abandoned due to riots.
Some of those games did get played, however, and while most of them were played under football rules, there was one match that may have played an early version of rugby, though it’s unconfirmed.
Truthfully, there could have been several exhibition matches of early women’s rugby played in the 19th century that no record exists of, either through lack of press reporting, or due to some level of intentional secrecy in order to avoid riots at the games, as there were in ‘81.
But thanks to some keen record-keeping, and later letters from Emily herself to the school, we can prove that Emily Valentine indeed not only played in a historic game, but became an integral part of practices and other intra-school games.
“I loved rugby football, but seldom got a chance to do more than kick a place-kick or a drop-kick, but I could run in spite of petticoats and thick undergarments. I could run. My great ambition was to play in a real rugby game and score a try.” -Extract from Emily Valentine’s journal.
Why Does This Matter For Women’s Rugby?
Outside of the obvious entry into the “boys club”, Emily’s story remains historic because it’s the only record of a woman playing rugby in the 19th century - at all.
While it’s not impossible (in fact, likely probable) that women were playing rugby in France, New Zealand, and elsewhere in the late century, Emily Valentine’s grand entrance onto the pitch in Enniskillen in 1887 is the first to go on-record.
And, as women’s rugby players, we know all-too-well the significance of recognition. From then on, the early 1900s showed women in Australia, New Zealand, Wales, France, and more playing rugby - on record, officially… laying their stake and firming up the for our game.
It kicked off what we’ve come to know as women’s rugby today. And it’s all thanks to one brave young woman stepping on to the pitch in Enniskillen in 1887
The Final Whistle
Remember the date. Remember the place. And, most importantly, remember the name.
Remember that at Portora Royal School in Enniskillen, Ireland, where their dad was Headmaster, Emily Valentine’s older brothers had founded a school rugby team in 1884.
And remember that three years later, when the team found themselves one man short in a game on one fateful day in 1887 , their younger sister took a historic step onto the pitch for the first time - finally realizing her dream.
10-year-old Emily Valentine took off her hat and coat, subbed in at wing, and scored a try. The rest, as they say, is history.