David Algie the Chief Guardian of the Utrecht and Raeburn Shields tells us about his initiative.
What links Viviane Berodier, the French fullback in the first women's rugby international to Rochelle Clark, Anna Richards, Barbara Bond, Portia Woodman, Manuela Furlan, Maggie Alphonsi, Elinor Snowsill, Emily Scarratt, Ruby Tui, and many many more legends of international women's rugby?
They have all held the Utrecht Shield at some point in their careers.
What is the Utrecht Shield?
In 1982 France played and won the first women's international in Utrecht against the Dutch. Viviane Berodier and her teammates became the de facto champions of international rugby and assumed the mantle of lineal champions or “Utrecht Shield Holders”.
This meant defending the Shield from this point in every match they played until they lost. They made it to six matches. In 1986 the Dutch returned the favour and ended “Utrecht Shield Run #1” to start run #2. It has changed hands in this way whenever the current holders or “defenders” lose to a challenger.
Since 1982 the Utrecht Shield has been held by France, The Netherlands, England, The United States, New Zealand, Ireland, Wales, and Italy. It is a quirk that some great teams have just never been lucky enough to get a challenge in the right match such as Canada who are yet to taste lineal success.
Fortunately, the Utrecht Shield and the Rugby World Cup complement each other rather than compete. The Rugby World Cup provides a pinnacle every four years for us to see who is the greatest in that moment in time. While the shield provides continuity between Rugby World cups, passing from hand to hand, and has been held by every Rugby World Cup champion so far.
Why have I never heard of it?
The Utrecht Shield and its brother in the Men's game, the Raeburn Shield, are relatively recent concepts. The idea came about on a rugby forum where some despondent kiwis were thinking of alternatives to track success when New Zealand had bombed out of the 2007 Men's Rugby World Cup. The Raeburn Shield was born at that time and later the Utrecht Shield followed.
It was a cool idea, but it probably would have ended there as although it was only a concept, what it tracked was very real and I passionately believed it could benefit the international game hugely.
Imagine the theatre if Ruahei Demant carried out the Utrecht Shield as co-captain of the current holders (at the time of writing NZ hold it) and places it on the side-line for display. Nobody can touch it until the end of the match when either she lifts it victorious again or hands it personally to the opposing captain.
- Rugby is more fun when we all compete for the same prize throughout the 4-year cycle plus the World Cup.
- It is acting as a thread through history the shield creates links with and recognises some of the amazing feats of the past. (Consider the Black Ferns team that retained the shield from 2002 until 2009!)
- The shield can be won in a single match meaning that teams have an opportunity to make history when playing a holder and will lift to that occasion
- Once you hold it the challenge of retaining it adds a sense of theatre to matches already taking place.
- The first time a World Cup holder loses is a prized scalp and comes with a reward that follows through from team to team until the next one!
It’s been quite a few years since I started this journey. The shields have grown in recognition, and it is a moment of joy when someone mentions it to me not knowing I am responsible. I have been on a mission to spread the word however I can. I’m patient, we will get there.
The campaign for recognition
The Utrecht and Raeburn Shields are not officially recognised but ultimately that doesn’t really matter at this point as they are real regardless.
The truth is, the priority is the players, the fans and everyone who loves the game being able to follow along and enjoy what it adds, being official doesn’t change that. Recognition comes from you hearing about it, talking about it, and enjoying the ups and downs of your teams on the journey.
But I will concede it is more fun when there is something real to hold rather than just an idea, so I was delighted when in June of 2022, I was lucky enough to fly over to Utrecht with my 8 year old son and join the amazing women from the French and Dutch teams who played in that 1982 match for the 40th celebrations with a real Utrecht Shield.
We haven’t finished (the silverwork costs £7,000 so it has stickers instead for now!) but I have known for years what I wanted the design to be and after finding a beautiful piece of French Oak it was crafted by the brilliant Freddie Main of Oak and Black in Edinburgh so there is now a physical shield in place to start building into the future with.
There is not yet a real physical Raeburn Shield for the men’s game so this is one of the few places we can say the women’s game came first!
To finish the job of bringing this concept to fans we have allowed individuals to contribute and get their name engraved on the back or chip in a smaller amount on the website. Some have already chosen to do so and have become part of history, but I am thankful to each person who interacts with our social content, tells someone about it or contributes in any way to spreading the word.
We now know that although England bought the shield into the World Cup tournament it was New Zealand who finished as both World Champions and Utrecht Shield holders.
In 2023 the excitement begins again, and the Utrecht Shield is the thread that binds our game as we start looking to who will be getting the first challenge and when it could next change hands. I hope New Zealand Rugby follow through on the opportunity their women provided and lay on some great matches.
I have a fulltime “real” job and a family of five to keep me busy but I will be following my passion for the game by working in the background to share updates, build out a larger following and finish the shield, my hope is that you join me on that journey celebrating a line of winners from the birth of our game until today.
I love that any player who wins it from now on will be connected to Viviane Berodier, Ruby Tui and a host of legends.
History is worth celebrating and I hope you join me in making the Utrecht Shield one of the ways you celebrate it.