2009: Changing the face of Women's Rugby

(IRB.COM) Sunday 3 January 2010
 2009: Changing the face of Women's Rugby
The last year has been an historic one for Wales with their first ever victory over England and a Six Nations Triple Crown

We take a look back at another landmark year for Women's Rugby, one which saw the first ever Women's Rugby World Cup Sevens champions crowned and historic double headers take place at iconic stadia.

Without doubt, the biggest event of the last 12 months came back in March when 16 nations converged on Dubai to take part in the first ever Rugby World Cup Sevens women's competition, which ran alongside the men's event at 'The Sevens' with Australia and China given the honour of contesting the opening match.

China were just one of the emerging nations occupying the same stage as the world's best teams over the two competition days, with Thailand, Brazil - the dominant force in South America - and Uganda others to leave their mark. For Uganda in particular this was an historic occasion, given they were their country's first ever national team to qualify for a World Cup in any sport.

Uganda may not have won a match in Dubai, but Sevens captain Helen Buteme has since admitted that gracing the Rugby World Cup Sevens stage has "changed the face of Women's Rugby in Uganda forever" with player numbers continuing to rise and more girls' schools wanting to introduce the sport. The fact that Rugby Sevens has now become an Olympic sport is certain to increase these interest levels, not only in Uganda but around the world.

The 16 teams all seized their opportunity to play on the world stage and showcase all that the Women's Game has to offer and more besides with plenty of upsets and nail-biting affairs along the way.

One of the biggest surprises on day one was undoubtedly Australia's 14-10 loss to France in their second pool match, the first time the Wallaroos Sevens team had lost since their formation in 2008. The Oceania champions still made it through to the Cup quarter finals, but as runners up in their pool the second seeds would have to face the number one side and pre-event favourites England.

England had not conceded a point in topping their pool, but it was they who were left in floods of tears after second half tries from Nicole Beck and Rebecca Tavo gave Australia a 17-10 victory and left only South Africa standing between them and the final after they too came from behind to defeat Spain 15-7.

Australia's women wrote their name into the RWC Sevens history books in Dubai

The other quarter finals were more clear cut, Carla Hohepa scoring a hat-trick as New Zealand preserved their position as the only unbeaten team left in the competition with a 33-12 defeat of Canada, setting up a meeting with USA, the 19-0 conquerors of France.

Once again the Wallaroos had to come from behind against South Africa with two late tries securing a 19-10 victory and a title showdown with New Zealand, who had edged past USA 14-12 with captain Hannah Porter's try proving the winning score.

The traditional trans-Tasman rivalry meant neither side wanted to give an inch, New Zealand hungry to become the first to unite both the 15-a-side and Sevens World Cups and Australia desperate to preserve their unbeaten record against the Black Ferns in this form of the Game, having recorded the Wallaroos' first ever wins over New Zealand in the Oceania Sevens the year before.

It was perhaps inevitable, therefore, that a pulsating final went into extra time with the sides locked at 10-10 after New Zealand cancelled out Australia's two-try advantage. Ultimately, though, it was the Wallaroos who wrote their names into the history books when Shelly Matcham found her way over in the corner to spark the celebrations. In the two other finals, China edged past Brazil 10-7 to win the Bowl competition and England overcame Canada 19-0 to take home the Plate.

For some of the European sides in action in Dubai it was straight back to the 15-a-side game with the conclusion of the Women's Six Nations. The title race was still wide open going into March, Wales having ended England's hopes of a fourth successive Grand Slam with a last gasp 16-15 win in Cardiff, Non Evans' penalty giving the Welsh their first win ever in 22 years of trying. England then ended the only other chance of a clean sweep by winning 29-13 in Ireland.

In the end, England strolled to another title, making the most of their home advantage to overwhelm France 52-7 and Scotland 72-3. They did finish the season tied with Wales on eight points, but had a +160 point differential over their conquerrs, who could still celebrate a first ever Triple Crown success. Ireland took third on point differential from France with Scotland fifth and Italy - the only side not to win a match - propping up the standings.

World Cup qualification

Wales and Ireland, by finishing as the "next best" outside of England and France, also confirmed their places at Women's Rugby World Cup 2010 and left Scotland and Italy needing to negotiate the European Trophy in May if they were to join them in the showpiece event of the Women's Game. England and France, as runners up and bronze medallists at the last World Cup in 2006, had direct qualification.

However, while Scotland did realise that goal of qualification with relative ease - overcoming Russia 84-0, Belgium 71-0 and the Netherlands 38-18 to top their pool - the dream died for Italy in Sweden. A last minute try by Jennifer Lindholm gave the hosts a surprise 16-14 win on the opening day. Sweden weren't finished there, beating Spain 11-6 as well to guarantee them top spot in the other pool and a first appearance at Women's Rugby World Cup since the 1998 tournament in the Netherlands.

The quartet of European qualifiers left only two places to fill in the 12-team event, one for the winner of the Oceania play-off between Australia and Samoa and the other for Asia's representative. The first of these play-offs took place in the Samoan capital of Apia in August, but there was little to cheer for the hosts as the Wallaroos ran in 15 tries - three of them by Rebecca Trethowan - to triumph 87-0 and join three-time defending champions New Zealand as Oceania's representatives at Women's Rugby World Cup 2010 in England.

There was further cause for Australian celebrations with their star number 8 Debby Hodgkinson presented with the IRB Women's Personality of the Year 2009 in association with Emirates Airline Award after the match. Hodgkinson had been named Player of the Tournament at the inaugural Women's Rugby World Cup Sevens in March, having started all six matches and scored seven tries, including one in a dramatic final victory over New Zealand.

Nearly three months would pass before the 12th and final qualifier was known when Kazakhstan, Japan and Hong Kong converged on Singapore at the beginning of November for the Asian qualifiers. Kazakhstan overwhelmed Hong Kong 58-14 before beating Japan 43-5 to reaffirm their position as Asia's leading side and qualify for a fifth successive Women's Rugby World Cup.

Sweden were the surprise package at the European Trophy - Photo: Fredrik Wicksell

In the period between Australia and Kazakhstan's qualifications, the national sides from England, France, South Africa and USA travelled to Canada for the expanded Women's Nations Cup. England may have retained their title with relative ease, conceding only two tries in four matches, but there were reasons to smile for some of the other nations involved, including South Africa who drew their opening match with France 17-17. The USA took the runners up spot after recording a first win over their Canadian neighbours since 2006 and holding France to a 15-15 draw on the final day.

When the Women's Rugby World Cup 2010 field was complete, the International Rugby Board unveiled the three pools and match schedule for the 20 August to 5 September tournament. The draw threw up some interesting match ups, not least the southern hemisphere flavour to Pool A and the pairing of France and Canada, who had battled for third place in the 2006 tournament.

Pool A: New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Wales
Pool B: England, USA, Ireland, Kazkahstan
Pool C: France, Canada, Scotland, Sweden

Click here to view the full match schedule >>

Only days after this draw was made, France and Canada came face to face in Dijon for the first of two tests in four days. The first encounter went Canada's way, the 14-5 victory their first over France in 11 years, but their hosts turned the tables on them to take the second test 22-0. This last tussle was an historic one, the first women's match to be held at the Stade de France and part of a double header with the French men's team taking on Samoa.

This was not the only double header taking place on that day as England and New Zealand - the top two sides in Women's Rugby - gracing the Twickenham turf for the first time immediately after the match between the two nations' men's teams. New Zealand had won the first test 16-3 and crushed England A 48-3, but were denied a clean sweep in the space of seven days as the Six Nations champions ran out 10-3 winners following a great advertisement for Women's Rugby.

It was the first time England had beaten New Zealand since 2001 and whetted the appetite even more for next year's World Cup, although the Black Ferns will be hoping that history repeats itself, that last loss having come the year before they successfully defended their mantle as world champions under the captaincy of their legendary hooker Farah Palmer.

Women's Rugby World Cup 2010 will be the most competitive tournament yet with neither England nor New Zealand considered overwhelming favourites to reach the final as in previous editions. Australia will certainly be in the mix, while Wales will hope to build on their own memorable year, which ended with an emphatic 56-7 defeat of Sweden in November.

So while 2009 was one to savour in the Women's Game, the next 12 months promise to raise the bar even further and introduce a new generation of fans and players to all that the sport has to offer.