Mike Rowbottom ©insidethegames

The reaction to the draw for the eighth Women's Rugby World Cup - due to start in Ireland on Wednesday (August 9) - appeared to offer clear evidence of how the women's game has progressed, even in the space of the last three years. 

Maggie Alphonsi, a now retired member of the England side that ended a run of four consecutive wins for New Zealand by winning the 2014 World Cup final in France, said: "My initial thoughts are that it is very exciting. 

"If you look back three years, seven years ago, the pools weren't necessarily that competitive, but now you look at the pools and you think, wow, there are some good match-ups there, there are going to be some good games and it is not actually as predictable in who you think will come out of each pool."

Asked if this response indicated how the women's game is growing, Katie Sadleir, appointed as World Rugby's first general manager for Women's Rugby last November, told insidethegames: "Definitely. As the registered numbers of senior players increase so does the talent pool from which to select and develop national teams. 

"Many of the players compete in both the sevens and the 15s game with Olympic inclusion generating increased national Government Agency and National Olympic Committee and Olympic Solidarity funding.

"This has enabled greater focus to be placed on comprehensive high-performance development programmes, which impact on both formats of the international game.

"With this comes an increased capability to focus on technical improvement, and we certainly saw how far the women's game has come at Rio 2016 where skill, speed and talent was in abundance."

Katie Sadleir has a key role in developing the sport of women's rugby ©World Rugby
Katie Sadleir has a key role in developing the sport of women's rugby ©World Rugby

Asked how important was the decision to give women absolute equality with men in terms of players and team numbers at Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro last year, Sadleir said. "Rio presented an opportunity to showcase the skill, speed and success of women's sevens to a biggest-ever global audience. 

"It has been a catalyst. World Rugby shares the International Olympic Committee's mission for gender equality in sport and the new global plan for World Rugby has an ambition which maps our ambitions and strategies for equal opportunities."

Now Sadleir, who has previously held directorships with Sport New Zealand and High Performance Sport New Zealand, as well as being a director with the International Association of Elite Sport Training Centres, a Board member at the New Zealand Swimming Federation and a New Zealand Olympic Committee Athletes' Commission member, is looking ahead to the forthcoming global event in Ireland.

"What we will hopefully see at this Women's Rugby World Cup 2017 is a reduction on average winning margins and a further leap in performance from 2014," Sadleir, who represented New Zealand in synchronised swimming at the 1984 Olympics and won a medal at the Edinburgh Commonwealth Games two years later, said. 

"Long-term, one of our high-performance goals is to close the gap in competitiveness between the top six and bottom six teams at international level."

Sadleir believes the impending World Cup in Ireland will be hugely important in maintaining the momentum of the women's game in terms of interest and profile.

"We are predicting a game-changing Women's Rugby World Cup and an event that will inspire the next generation of girls and boys to get into rugby," she said. "The stage is set for a fantastic event on and off the field with a record broadcast and social media platform and a real global groundswell of support, following on from the recent Cricket World Cup and UEFA Women's Championship.

"We are also capturing the expertise from the national federations competing at the Women's Rugby World Cup via a two-day leadership forum to discuss international good practice. With 30 key influencers and enablers from rugby, women's sport and business present, the forum has three main objectives.

"We want to provide opportunities for targeted Unions and the Regional Associations to have further input into the draft Women's Rugby Plan from 2017 to 2025.

"We want to share and discuss good practice in the development of women's rugby globally, and we also want to proactively develop a leadership network of key influencers within women's rugby.

"And, in a first for a Women's Rugby World Cup, I will also be meeting with the captains and vice-captains of the teams who will be likely to play an off-field leadership role in the development of women in rugby in the future, to talk about how we can provide support throughout their playing career to develop their leadership potential."

The US Eagles squad get ready for participating in the Women's Rugby World Cup that gets underway in Ireland ©WorldRugby
The US Eagles squad get ready for participating in the Women's Rugby World Cup that gets underway in Ireland ©WorldRugby

World Rugby marked International Women's Day this year by launching a huge consultation process and announcing a new eight-year plan to build the women's game until 2025.

"The response has been overwhelmingly positive from all our unions both in terms of the consultation via workshops and also via a detailed questionnaire, which I believe attracted a record response," Sadleir said. "This approach has delivered excellent insights and trends, which are helping to shape our strategy.

"The women's plan is about partnership and sustainable growth to accelerate the development of women in rugby both on and off the field. We have a strong and active Women's Rugby Advisory Committee, chaired by Bill Pulver at the Australian Rugby Union, which is driving this programme - a first for World Rugby.

"In addition to having a great champion in the Committee, we have a great platform. Women's Rugby is growing at record pace - there are double the amount of women and girls playing now than when the Olympic sevens decision was made in 2009.

"There is greater access, greater media interest and a real desire to focus beyond participation, to deliver stronger competition models, develop leaders, build profile and invest more heavily. You need only look at the success of Australia's sevens team at Rio to see the profound impact that is achievable. They quickly became household names and ambassadors for the game."

At the time the latest World Rugby consultation process was announced, Sadleir responded by saying: "We must be bold for change". 

She highlighted the need to "eliminate barriers".

"We launched the extensive consultation process on International Women's Day, which had the global theme 'be bold for change'," she added."It was a perfect platform to reach our global women's rugby community and beyond and was a perfect catalyst to start having meaningful discussions with stakeholders about how we collaboratively build on the success of the last plan.

"When we mention eliminating barriers, most of these are not specific to rugby, but relate to social and cultural perceptions that exist in some countries where our unions are based relating to women playing sport. We can collaborate with other sporting codes to understand where good practice has been implemented and develop an environment that promotes, supports and nurtures women's sport.

"The game is evolving and growing rapidly, which is great and this plan is not about the past, but looking to the future to harness the great opportunities that the sport has. A strong game needs strong female participation at every level of the game, and in order to achieve that, we need to think and act differently and it is exciting to see game-wide support.

"We must ensure that collectively we are delivering opportunities in the playground, the podium and in the boardroom to build a relevant, fun, exciting and sustainable game and that is what the Executive Committee, our Unions and World Rugby staff are collectively committed to doing."

On the subject of barriers - the official line is that women's rugby union is a sport identical to men's rugby union, which is broadly true in all but one respect. For the majority of its existence, the women's game has been disdained, discouraged and - on occasions - disrupted by the sport's ruling (male) establishment.

England acknowledge the applause of their fans after winning the last Women's Rugby World Cup in Paris three years ago to end New Zealand's run of four consecutive victories ©Getty Images
England acknowledge the applause of their fans after winning the last Women's Rugby World Cup in Paris three years ago to end New Zealand's run of four consecutive victories ©Getty Images

Wikipedia reports that public reaction to women playing contact sports could be disrespectful, or even violent. In 1881, when two teams played a number of exhibition "football" games in Scotland and northern England, at least one of which involved "touchdowns", several had to be abandoned due to rioting in or around the grounds.

Because of the underground nature of the game, there are few reliable reports of early activity.

The first documented evidence of an attempt to form a purely women's team is from 1891 when a tour of New Zealand by a team of female rugby players was cancelled due to public outcry.

During the First World War some women's charity games were organised, the most well documented taking place at Cardiff Arms Park on December 16 in 1917, when Cardiff Ladies - who all worked for local brewers Hancocks - beat Newport Ladies 6–0. The Cardiff full-back, Maria Eley, lived to the age of 106.

In Sydney in 1921, two women's teams played a game of rugby league in front a crowd of 30,000. A photograph appeared in The Times in 1922, but pressure from authorities ensured they did not play again.

Throughout the 1920s a popular form of women's football game, very similar to rugby, called barette, was played across France and there were National Championships throughout the decade.

In 1930 a women's league playing the full game was formed in Australia, in the New South Wales areas of Tamworth and Armidale, which ran until halted by the Second World War.

But it was not until the 1960s that the women's game finally began to establish itself widely - through university sport. In 1962 the first recorded UK women's rugby union team appeared at Edinburgh University. In 1963, female students participated in matches against male students in London, and in 1965 university sides were being formed in France.

As the pioneering students left university an adult game began to evolve. The first fully documented women's club match took place on May 1, 1968 in France, at Toulouse Fémina Sports in front of "thousands of spectators". The success of the event lead to the formation of the first national association for women's rugby union - the Association Francaise de Rugby Feminin - at Toulouse, in 1970.

That year also saw the first reports of women's rugby union in Canada, and by 1972 four universities in the United States were playing the game.

By 1980 there were club tournaments in the United States and Sweden, and provincial championships in New Zealand. The game first appeared in Japan in 1981.

The first women's international took place on June 13 in 1982 when France beat The Netherlands 4-0.

National federations were emerging in Britain, Italy, Canada, Japan and the Sovet Union, and in 1988 the Women's International Rugby Board (WIRB) was formed.

The forerunner to the Women's World Cup - RugbyFest - was held in Christchurch, New Zealand in 1990, involving club sides and four unofficial national teams.

The first Women's Rugby World Cup took place in Wales the following year - without the approval of the International Rugby Board (IRB) - and the winners were the US, who beat England in the final.

In 1994 the second World Cup was awarded to The Netherlands, but when the IRB threatened sanctions against any unions that took part several key nations, and then the hosts, withdrew.

Scotland stepped in to save the event with only 90 days to go before it was due to start, and the final saw England gain revenge over the US.

Two years later, however, the IRB set up a Women's Advisory Committee aiming at a 100 per cent increase in numbers by 2001.

Asked to account for this volte face, Sadleir replied: "That was more than 20 years ago, way before my time, I would prefer to talk about the present and the future. I moved to Dublin from Wellington, New Zealand, and began working with World Rugby in January this year and since then have been very encouraged at the enthusiasm and support I have witnessed to driving some significant projects forward.

"Through my travels as part of consulting on the new global plan I have received fantastic support from the senior management and Board members within World Rugby and other key influencers at both a regional and union level."

In 1997 the first Hong Kong Sevens tournament for women was held, and the following year New Zealand dropped the nickname of the "Gal Blacks" in favour of "Black Ferns".

New Zealand's Black Ferns will seek to reclaim the World Cup in Ireland ©Getty Images
New Zealand's Black Ferns will seek to reclaim the World Cup in Ireland ©Getty Images

A year later the third Women's Rugby World Cup became the first to be fully sanctioned by the IRB. The tide had finally turned, and in 1999 the Women's Five Nations - now, like the men's version, Six Nations - was established.

In 2006 the RFU devoted the rugby museum's main annual exhibition to the history of women's rugby and the Women's World Cup in that year was broadcast live on the Internet.

In 2009 Australia won the inaugural IRB Women's Rugby World Cup Sevens in Dubai, which was fully integrated into the men's competition.

The following year a crowd of 13,253 - a world record for a women's match - watched the World Cup final at Twickenham Stoop.

In 2012, the IRB launched the World Rugby Women's Sevens Series, and four years later men's and women's sevens were introduced at Rio 2016 on an equal footing.

The recent confirmation by the Rugby Football Union (RFU) that the England players who will defend their World Cup crown know their full-time contracts will not be renewed whether they successfully defend their title or not looked to many observers inside and outside the game like another barrier facing the women's game.

Retired England player and 2014 World Cup winner Maggie Alphonsi claimed the decision by the RFU not to renew the players' full-time contracts in 15-a-side was
Retired England player and 2014 World Cup winner Maggie Alphonsi claimed the decision by the RFU not to renew the players' full-time contracts in 15-a-side was "very disappointing" ©Getty Images

At the time the contracts were awarded, England's loosehead prop Rochelle Clark commented on what was described as a "game-changing" decision, saying: "I think having this professional contract is just going to add the one percenters, which should all hopefully add up and give us that extra step up I guess in the new year."

Alphonsi described the news as "very disappointing" and several politicians including the Shadow Minister for Sport, Dr Rosena Allin-Khan, have reacted with dismay. 

But the RFU has defended the switch in emphasis to the sevens game after the 15-a-side tournament. The RFU’s director of professional rugby, Nigel Melville, said the players were told in the spring.

Asked whether this indicated that, despite all the advances for the women’s game in recent years, this demonstrated that it is still not being treated in the same way as the men’s game, Sadleir said it was a issue for the English game.

"This is a matter for the RFU, not World Rugby," she said. "The RFU are real champions of women's rugby and invest significant resources in the women's game and in so many ways have been trail-blazers in terms of setting standards and delivering great programmes."