When people think of rugby’s origins, they conjure William Webb Ellis. But today, many historians agree that he played a mythical role in the creation of the sport. Emily Valentine, however, is a vintage icon, especially for women’s rugby. Her real-life story began in 19th century Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, and her actions root and inspire the present day.
In 1887, 65 years after rugby was invented, 10-year-old Valentine ran onto the Portora Royal School rugby pitch to join her male teammates and opponents. When the whistle sounded, Valentine became the first female to play in an actual rugby game - or at least, have the official records to back her appearance.
The Story Behind The Beginning of Women’s Rugby
It’s not enough to just ask "when was rugby invented", or how rugby was invented, because for women’s rugby, the story is in the context.
In the early days of female sport, it was socially disrespectful for women to play contact sports. Their games drew disparaging, if any, press coverage and sometimes violent responses from the public. In 1881, Scotland and England built a women’s football tour, and several matches were abandoned due to riots.
Some of those games did get played, however, and while most of them followed football rules, there was one match that may have shifted to adopt an early version of rugby. That account, however, is unconfirmed and still under debate.
Realistically, there were likely exhibition matches before 1887 that featured the early versions of women’s rugby, but records are scant. Either that was very little press reportage, or learning from 1881, there was some level of intentional secrecy in order to avoid riots at the games.
But thanks to some keen record-keeping, and later letters from Valentine herself to the Royal Portora, there is proof that she 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”, Valentine’s story remains historic because it’s the only record of a woman playing rugby in the 19th century - at all.
There’s on-going research into the women who were playing rugby in France, New Zealand and elsewhere in the late 19th century, but that task is representative of the anonymity that women’s sport has had to overcome. By the 1900s, women’s rugby finally started joining the official record in Australia, Wales, France, New Zealand and more countries, and then really picked up in the 1960s, setting a tone for the vintage rugby eras to come.
Today, record and recognition take new but related forms, and there have been major triumphs. Reference the Nov. 21, 2021, test match between England and France, and the professional media treatment that game received. The impact is incalculable in terms of what our brains think are possible once our eyes see it in action. (Read: Can’t See, Can’t Be).
That is Emily Valentine. When did rugby start for women? 1887, Enniskillen - an origin worth celebrating.
The Final Whistle
There’s certainly more to Valentine’s story than the fact that one can prove a 10-year-old girl played in a boys’ rugby game. Emily’s father was the Portora Royal School headmaster, and her three older brothers formed the rugby team in 1884.
She had been kept to the wintry sidelines but never stopped asking for field time. Finally, in 1887, the rugby team found itself one player short and needed a replacement. She took that historic step onto the pitch, but Valentine wanted more. She had no intention of being a placeholder on the wing, and her true dream was to score a try.
So when she got the ball, she went on the run of her life, and thanks to a little bit of “try eyes,” Valentine got her wish.
"… what I’d wanted I’d had; the desperate run, the successful dodging, and the touch down.” [excerpt from Valentine’s journal]
Could there be a more appropriate starting point for women’s rugby?