The first all-women rugby match was played in May 1915 at Athletic Park in Wellington. Even the referee was a woman.
It's one of the fascinating facts shared in the New Zealand Rugby Museum's new exhibition, Herstory of Women's Rugby.
The exhibition was opened last Thursday by Dr Farah Palmer, former Black Ferns captain and current New Zealand Rugby director, among other achievements. Palmer acknowledged she was wearing many pōtae (hats) as she told the crowd - including the Black Ferns squad - she was so proud the Palmerston North museum wanted to tell the story of women's rugby.
Referring to the three women mentioned in the Black Ferns haka Ko Uhia Mai - Hineahuone, Hinetitama and Hine-nui-te-pō - Palmer said the first female rugby players were trailblazers like Hineahuone but didn't know what they were doing. No one knew how to handle us and we were making up the rules as we went, she said. Yes, we made mistakes, yes, we were nowhere as good as the Black Ferns are today, but we were the ones that started it off.
Hineahuone was the first female form and her daughter was Hinetitama. Like Hinetitama, the next generation of female rugby players liked to push boundaries and wanted more resources and not secondhand jerseys.
Like Hine-nui-te-pō, the guardian of the afterlife, the next generation had to decide if they wanted to commit their life to rugby as a professional player or move on, Palmer said.
Herstory of Women's Rugby is an exhibition about New Zealand women's rugby from 1888 to the present. Women have been playing some sort of rugby in New Zealand since at least 1888, but it was 1982 before there was a regular weekly club competition.
Rugby museum director Stephen Berg said Herstory was one of his favourite exhibitions to work on. Usually, they had lots of resource material to draw on but this time they couldn't go to their library and find a book on women's rugby.
Instead they started from scratch. It was exciting to work on a project no one had done before and produce Herstory. He acknowledged the work of Wellington freelancer Adam Julian, who interviewed every Black Fern and wrote a profile on them, and Palmerston North's Catherine Hehir, who laid out the exhibition and did a lot of the research and writing.
Julian said the story of women's rugby in New Zealand needed to be told and it was phenomenal what the players fought to achieve and did achieve.
Hehir focused on the 1800s to the 1990s and discovered much about that first documented all-women match in 1915. She said with men at war there was a dearth of rugby and sporting entertainment. Women stepped into the breach and that game was a married women's team versus a single women's team during an interval in a men's game; the money raised went to support soldiers.
In the museum's permanent exhibition there are two photos of women wearing hobble skirts playing in a soldiers charity game, circa 1918.
Berg said the exhibition is portable and the goal is to take it around New Zealand to clubs, schools, halls and libraries and to the Rugby World Cup in 2022.
Cr Billy Meehan described the exhibition as groundbreaking. The chairman of Palmerston North City Council's play, recreation and sport committee said the exhibition celebrated the emergence and excellence of women's rugby in New Zealand.
What: Herstory of Women's Rugby
When: 10am-4pm every day until July
Where: New Zealand Rugby Museum
Tickets: Adults $12.50, children $5, family $30 for entry to the whole museum