Christchurch 1990 - RugbyFest: The Precursor to the Women's Rugby World Cup

By Jackie Finlan, The Rugby Breakdown

The previous installment honored the first women’s rugby national association, which not only advocated for its players and sport, but also provided a structure for growth and emulation. In 1982, the governing bodies in France and Netherlands organized the first-ever women’s international rugby match, and it became the catalyst for more national teams playing each other. Soon enough, it was time to think globally, and RugbyFest 1990 primed rugby for its first world cup.

RugbyFest occurred in New Zealand from August 19-September 1, but it was not the first tournament to involve multiple national teams. International touring existed, and in 1985, 36 Americans traveling under the WIVERN banner swept through England and France. The trip left an indelible mark on the game and intensified the desire for more women’s international rugby.

National teams started to play with more regularity (the USA and Canada played their first test match in 1987, kicking off an annual CanAm series), and in 1988, the first Women’s European Cup was held. This championship is to the cache of women’s rugby facts, as it marked the first tournament for multiple national teams from the same continent: France, Great Britain, Italy and the Netherlands. The championship exists to this day.

And then it was time for national teams from different regions to come together, and New Zealand’s RugbyFest 1990 was the time and place. Otherwise known as the “Women’s World Rugby Festival,” the event invited national teams as well as provincial and club sides to Christchurch for the two-week event. At this point, the first Women’s Rugby World Cup in 1991 Wales was already on the calendar, and so the women’s international rugby community was very interested in the primer.

From a New Zealand news broadcast in advance of the event (watch the full segment, dated descriptions, vintage rugby jerseys and all):

“Women’s rugby in New Zealand has a long way to go, both in terms of being readily accepted by the spectator public and the sponsorship dollar. In fact it seems other countries in the world are way ahead of us, but with official recognition by the New Zealand Rugby Union, a giant leap forward for womankind has been taken.”

RugbyFest 1990 took place from August 19-September 1. The first week involved provincial and club teams from New Zealand (including the Crusadettes, a University of Canterbury team that toured the U.S. and Europe in 1988), Nagoya and Tokyo of Japan, and the ultra-active Netherlands. The second week saw national teams from New Zealand, the United States, the former Soviet Union and Netherlands play each other and club teams.

In fact, the USA arrived in the southern hemisphere for the second week of competition and played five games on five consecutive days. The Eagles started with a 12-0 win against Canterbury, and then had an unexpected game against Auckland scheduled for the next day. The Americans won that match 6-0, and then the following night beat the “Flying Dutchies” - per In Support - 38-0. 

On Aug. 30, the Eagles played their fourth match in as many days, facing undefeated New Zealand in what proved to be the main attraction. The home side won 6-3 to finish the international round robin 3-0. On the last day of August, the Americans played the former Soviet Union to a 32-0 win to finish 4-1 overall.

But the tournament wasn’t over! In true festival spirit, the round robin winners - New Zealand - then played a World XV team, or all-star squad with players from the rest of the field. The U.S. contributed nine members.

“Although the World team enjoyed a backline predominantly comprised of U.S.A. players, the scrum was a conglomeration of many sides, some of which had trouble communicating in English,” In Support wrote.

New Zealand won 12-4.

RugbyFest 1990 was a massive undertaking, especially considering the support that was still withheld from national governing bodies. But women’s international rugby took an important step for itself, and that effort would bloom with the first world cup the following year.

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