Meet the four women who pulled off organising the first ever Women's Rugby World Cup

Susan Dorrington, Mary Forsyth, Alice Cooper and Deborah Griffin (clockwise) - the women behind the first ever Women's Rugby World Cup. Credit: Handout/India Roper-Evans
  • By Digital Content Producer Amani Hughes

With no funding, working early mornings, late nights, weekends, all while holding down full-time jobs, four women managed to achieve the impossible – organising the first ever Women's Rugby World Cup in 1991.

Deborah Griffin, Susan Dorrington, Alice Cooper, and Mary Forsyth were the women who pulled off this feat, without sponsors, without the backing of the Rugby Football Union or the International Rugby Board, and as they were told women’s rugby is a "participation sport not a spectator sport".

At the time all four women were members of the Richmond Rugby Club and came together through their shared love of the game, but all women shared more than that.

All had a determination and drive to pull off this tournament.

“We used to meet before work in Mayfair in Mary’s offices at 7am in the morning,” Deborah explains.

“I led on it because I was a member of the Rugby Football Union for Women, so I took the lead on finding venues, Mary looked after the finances, Sue was looking at sponsorship and raising money and Alice was very much behind the branding and the marketing.”

The four women at Richmond Rugby Cup before the 1991 Women's Rugby World Cup. Credit: Susan Dorrington

The four women spoke to ITV News as England was announced as the host country for the 2025 women’s World Cup.

The pool games - or group stages - will be held across the country and a new 16-team format will be introduced with Twickenham hosting the final.

It is hoped a 82,000 sell-out crowd will be present at the final - a far cry from the 3,000 crowd at the 1991 final.

The Rugby Football Union has forecasted that 2025 will provide a £156million uplift to the UK economy.

And it will be the first time since 2010 that England have hosted the event and they are current Six Nations champions and the game’s number-one ranked side who will enter this year’s World Cup in New Zealand as favourites.

But the 2025 tournament has to look back at the humble beginnings of the 1991 games, the legacy it created and how it laid the foundation for women's rugby.

"This was 31-years-ago and the landscape for women's sport was very different back then, it was women playing rugby, women in sport," Sue explains, who not only helped to organise the world cup but also played for England at the 1991 games.

“We had so many things going against us and approaching some of the larger companies it was a matter of being told that women’s rugby is a participation sport not a spectator sport".

One of the biggest hurdles the women had to overcome was finding a sponsor for the games, they had no funding and were volunteering their time to organise the tournament. Despite taking on a commercial sponsorship agency the women were still not able to secure any funding, but this would not discourage them.

“We’re all switched on and so we just weren’t going to be deterred, we set our minds to delivering it, to doing it, and despite all sorts of pushbacks… we just continued to push through,” Sue says.

Instead of sponsorship, they went about securing donations from companies, one donated minivans, another rugby balls, the Welsh Rugby Union stepped in with referees and most teams had to pay for their own travel and accommodation to the tournament.

This was a time when women's rugby was in it infancy and players were not paid to compete - the sport was not recognised for women as it is today, with professional full-time players.

The four women decided on Cardiff as the host city, and Deborah says “they very much got behind the tournament and supported it”, putting on the opening ceremony, and the final dinner and providing the Cardiff Arms Park for the semi-finals and finals.

The rest of the games – the pool stages – were held in different clubs all over Wales.

Deborah remembers at the time the Soviet team were not allowed to bring money out of the country, so they came armed with vodka and cucumbers to sell to pay for their transport and accommodation.

“Of course this wasn’t allowed because of customs and that’s when it got into the press, and the people of Cardiff helped them out,” Deborah explains.

It was less slick than the rugby world cups that have come after it, but the 1991 tournament had a sense of community, improvisation and heart at its core.

Susan Dorrington playing for England (centre).

Alice recalls having to type out and print the programmes overnight on her dot matrix printer – the “pre-digital age”.

“They would go off at 6am in the morning to be printed and be back for 12pm and they would have to go out wherever the match was,” she explains.

“We had no sat nav, trying to find these little rugby clubs at the bottom of the Rhonda Valley was a very hard task.”

12 teams, nine days of tournaments – how did it feel to have pulled it off? One word came up for most of the women – “exhaustion”.

“We were just so overwhelmed and elated that it was over, everybody just collapsed in a heap,” Sue says.

Alice had to drive straight to work after the tournament was over, on just a few hours’ sleep – the tournament was her holiday.

“We were all just exhausted at the end of it, to be quite honest, and I don’t think we realised what we’d accomplished until probably many months, even years later,” Deborah explains.

While Mary explains she didn’t have the full experience of the 1991 World Cup as the other three women, as she had her first child less than a week before the opening ceremony, but she made it down to Cardiff with her newborn baby, husband and mother for the final.

“I’m so proud of the team effort across so many people more people than just the four of us,” Mary says.

“We were the Organisers - but the delivery was all encompassing of the women's rugby world in Britain in 1991.”

As England prepares to host the next Women's Rugby World Cup in 2025 – in what is expected to be the biggest to date - have the women thought about the legacy they laid down since those first games in 1991?

“It’s only recently that I’ve taken on board what we did, we were all really driven smart women and we just did what we thought we needed to do,” Sue explains.

“We were hoping there would be some legacy, we hoped that there would be another World Cup, that we had started something that would carry on, but we never looked this far ahead.

“It's only recently that I truly appreciated what happened…the history that we laid down as women with nothing and no one.

“I'm incredibly pleased and very proud of the four of us and what we did and what we achieved.”

A special exhibition 'The Rugby World Cup: In Her Own Words' is running at World Rugby Museum in Twickenham until October 31.