How a game for a laugh led to Deborah Griffin blazing a trail to develop women's rugby
In conversation with the Cambridge University Rugby Football Union secretary and Homerton College bursar who had an influential role in establishing women's rugby in England
With the current burgeoning appeal of women’s rugby union, it is easy to forget its humble origins in this country only four decades ago.
While the merits of the story of William Webb Ellis’ exploits at Rugby School may be shrouded in doubt, there is no disputing that the game of rugby union, as we know it, dates to the early 19th century.
It is quite staggering therefore to think that we had to wait around 150 years, until 1978, before there was even an inkling of women taking up the sport.
Maybe it is not too surprising to know that education played a key role again, but the exact beginnings of the development of women’s rugby were in a far from structured setting.
Forty years ago, current Homerton College bursar Deborah Griffin was part of a friendship group which saw a group of girls at University College London, where she was a student, go to watch the boys play rugby.
By watching their contemporaries play the game, they developed a keenness for the sport and decided to challenge the girls at King’s College London to a match; the two would regularly face each other in a sporting contest as part of a series of commemorative and foundation matches.
“We trained a little bit – the sports fields were miles out so we trained in the gym – and it was probably a dreadful game, but we came off and thought ‘gosh, that was fun’,” said Griffin.
What started off as “a laugh” had sown the seeds as UCL and King’s faced each other again, before Imperial College and St Mary’s Hospital were invited to raise teams.
“Gradually, over the next few years, Keele got a team, York got a team and it just started to grow like that, so it was all in the universities,” said Griffin.
“None of those people had played before, and, to an extent, the universities are still quite a hotbed of new people playing.”
With a can-do personality that is still instantly recognisable, Griffin became an influential figure in driving women’s rugby forward.
The group of friends established structures, and soon to follow were competitions as the development of the game took hold.
The Women’s Rugby Football Union was formed in 1983 – after a break-up of the unions to go their
own way England’s became the Rugby Football Union for Women (RFUW) – and it consisted of 17 sides, 16 of which were university teams and the other being a Welsh club side.
“We didn’t have alickadoos, we didn’t have older people helping; we were young, we were playing, we were all of the same age,” said Griffin, who went on to play for 14 years.
“Now there are a few more older people coming on board but I’m very conscious that you can achieve a lot as a youngster because you are more fearless. You don’t know what failure looks like and you can come up with stupid ideas.
“As long as nobody says to you ‘we’ve tried that before and it doesn’t work’, you will try to do it and you can achieve a lot.
“We just took it one step at a time. It was either us thinking of doing things, or things happening that were a bit of a catalyst.
“In 1986, Wyvern, an American side, came over and we knew they were quite good as somebody told us, so rather than play them as clubs, we created regions so that was a catalyst for building up a regional structure.
“And to be honest, they beat us, they beat every single region out of sight and that was a catalyst for saying we need to be better and need to think more about coaching, so things happened.
“I don’t think I ever had a vision; it was just let’s try to give opportunities to people who want to play, and support people.”
That of course has all changed now, with the RFU recently releasing their vision for the future of the sport.
But it has taken its time to get there.
It was not until 1994 that the RFUW had its first employed person, and then in 2010, the RFUW was integrated into the RFU, with full integration into the RFU structures and management by July 2012.
Griffin was chair of the integration board, having been on the RFU Council since 2010, and is now in her second three-year term representing women’s and girls’ rugby, and is also on the RFU board.
And things have continued to progress.
The elite Tyrrells Premier 15s league was launched this season to broaden the number of players who could play for England.
“What we’ve created in the 10 clubs we have in it is more professional – strength and conditioning, the coaches are better supported, doing more CPD (Continuing Professional Development) and growing with the game, the communicators, the people doing digital media, the medical, the administrators, the marketing people,” said Griffin.
“You are actually growing teams of people as well as the players. I find that really exciting. I hadn’t appreciated, in a way, that would be one of the outcomes, but it is.
“Those guys should go forward and represent their constituent bodies, get on the council and all the rest of it, so that is coming.”
At the end of last year, England Rugby launched the women’s and girls’ action plan to continue to grow the number of women and girls’ engaging in the game.
There are currently 27,000 adult players, compared to 10 times that many for the men, while not every club has a women’s set-up or a pathway to allow players to go all the way through, from the youth ranks to adult rugby.
But the strategy is not just about doubling player numbers, it is about getting more female officials and coaches.
“If the players grow and we haven’t got the coaches or the refereeing or the supporting structures, we might as well give up because they will all go away and play something else,” said Griffin.
“I know it’s a really tough ask because if you’ve played 12 or 15 years as a club player, you think ‘I’m retiring now so I can do other things on a weekend’.
“I would implore all of those people to just think what they can do to continue to help grow the sport for other people.”
And the thing is with Griffin, you understand the sincerity with which she means those words.
Not content with getting women’s rugby to this point and balancing her role at Homerton with that of being chairman of the School of Hard Knocks charity and secretary of Cambridge University Rugby Football Union, she still wants to do more for the game.
“There are so many people that are involved in it, the volunteer base is just huge,” said Griffin.
“When I go round the country and see people working and supporting clubs, and coaching passionately, I just think it’s amazing.
“I’m just really pleased it is where it is, and excited about the next 10 years.”
And she added: “I suppose in some ways, I still want to be a doer. I want to go back and do more.
“I’m much more comfortable as a doer, so that’s what I want to know, how do I do more?”