History of Women's Rugby
History of Women's Rugby in Ontario
Written by Safa Khan with collaboration from the Ontario rugby community
Men’s rugby in Ontario dates back to the 1870s, where it primarily played at university level. By 1929, the British Rugby Union of Ontario had 8 clubs in Toronto and Hamilton. The number of clubs doubled during the 1930s but the growth of rugby was brought to a halt prior to and during the second World War. Between 1949 and 1950, a league of 6 men’s teams had developed: Wanderers, Nomads, Barbarians, University of Toronto, Brantford Harlequins, and Irish Canadians. In 1952, these clubs handed the administration of rugby in Ontario to a newly formed Ontario Rugger Union. The 60s and 70s would see the growth of several new clubs and the formation of branch unions to administer them. During this time, rugby is widely seen as a sport for men, viewed as too physical to be appropriate for women. Early attempts to develop women’s rugby teams, as seen in UK, France, New Zealand, and Australia, are publicly opposed and met with disdain. Despite opposition, women’s rugby begins to be played in universities in Western Europe in the 1960s.
Women’s rugby teams begin to develop in Canadian universities in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1978, one of the first documented non-university women’s rugby teams in the world is formed in Canada. The first women’s club rugby team in Ontario, the Ottawa Banshees, is formed in Ottawa in 1979. More Ontario women’s teams are formed in the 80s and the 90s: Kingston (1987), Niagara (1987), Ajax (1987), Saracens (1989), Balmy Beach (1989), Brampton (1990), Toronto Scottish (1992), Yeomen (1992), Brantford Harlequins (1992), Lindsay (1992), London St. George’s (1993), Orillia Dingos (1993), Toronto Barbarians (1994), Barrie Blues (1994), Ottawa Irish (1995), Aurora RFC (1997), Windsor (1997), Toronto Lions (1997), Belleville (1997), and London Forest City (1998). [Thank you to the rugby community for collecting and submitting the above dates. If you have any additions or corrections, please submit them to firstname.lastname@example.org].
1983 marks the start of provincial women’s championships in Canada. In 1987, theâ¯Canadian Rugby Union adds a Vice President Women's Rugby to CRU Board of Directors and on November 14th, 1987 Rugby Canada’s first women’s international match is played in Victoria, BC against USA. Outside of the country, the first official women’s National Championship is also held in 1987.
By 1988, the Ontario Federation of School Athletic Associations (OFSAA) start holding unofficial provincial championships for girls’ high school rugby. 1989 also sees Ontario’s first women’s provincial team coached by Leo Pavone. In 1989, Penny McCarthy becomes Ontario Rugger Union’s first Women’s Director, followed in the coming years by Dee Gannon and Gina Minutillo.
In 1990, Ajax Wanderers win the first ORU Women’s Championship (now known as the Ontario Women’s League). For a complete list of Ontario Women’s League Champions please go to our 'Past OWL Cup Champions' page.
The first Women’s Rugby World Cup is held in 1991, with the following participants: New Zealand, Wales, USA, England, France, Canada, Sweden, USSR, Japan, Spain, Italy, and the Netherlands. Canadian women also appear in the 1994, 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010, 2014, and 2017 World Cups. Canadian women are consistently among top five women’s rugby nations in the world. In 1993, Canada hosts the first Canada Cup (international rugby tournament) for women’s rugby, which is also held in 1996, 2000, and 2005.
In 1997, the first 7-a-side international games are played when Hong Kong Sevens includes a women’s tournament for the first time. The participants include Arabian Gulf, Australia, Canada England, Fiji, Hong Kong, Japan, Netherlands, New Zealand Wild Ducks, Scotland, Singapore, and the United States.
1998 is a big year for women’s rugby in Canada. By 1998, OFSAA’s girls’ rugby provincial championship is a 16-team tournament held in Whitby. There are 8000 registered senior women and another 2000 registered junior (U19) girls in Canada. There are also 30 clubs in Ontario with women’s rugby teams and a competitive 8-team university league that plays in the fall. 1998 also marks the first Canadian Intercollegiate Championships as well as the first version of Women’s Rugby World Cup (15s) to be fully sanctioned by International Rugby Board (Canada comes in 4th).
In the next few years, women’s rugby continued to grow in Canada. In 2006, Canada hosts IRB's Rugby World Cup and finishes in 4th place. In 2009, the first Women’s Sevens World Cup is held in Dubai. In 2012, the annual IRB Women’s Sevens World Series is launched. The 2013 Women’s Sevens World Cup is held in Russia and Canada finishes in second place to New Zealand. Shortly afterwards, the inclusion of women’s rugby sevens in the Olympics is announced. Canadian women win bronze at the Rio 2016 Olympics. Canada’s historic win in the 2016 Olympics marks an almost immediate rise in the popularity of the sevens game, especially among girls and young women. Canada currently ranks 4th in World Rugby’s international women’s rugby rankings. As the popularity of women’s rugby continues to grow and minor and junior girls’ programs continue to develop across the country, we have high hopes for our success at national level to continue to break records and reach new heights.