’91 World Cup-winning Eagles: Rugby Perfection and No Regrets
Rugby Coach Appreciation Week Spotlight
If you were coaching a team against New Zealand or England in a Rugby World Cup, how would you feel? Nervous? Anxious? Overwhelmed? How would you inspire your team to rugby perfection against all odds? For Kevin O’Brien and Chris Leach, the coaches of the World Cup-winning 1991 USA Women’s Eagles, it is all about instilling a belief in yourself and striving for perfection. A win wasn’t as important to these coaches as playing a respectable style of rugby with one key tenet: no regrets.
On April 12, 1991 O’Brien and Leach led a team of young women onto the world’s greatest rugby stage to face the world’s greatest team. The Eagles were facing the New Zealand Black Ferns in the 1991 Women’s Rugby World Cup semifinal in Cardiff Arms Park, Wales. After weeks of training and total preparation under the guidance of two compatible and scholarly coaches, the American women felt comfortable and excited to meet the challenge of a rugby dream.
They faced the Haka with calmness and belief in themselves and, crucially, the team as a whole. Going through the players’ minds before the kickoff to the semifinal of the first-ever Women’s Rugby World Cup were thoughts of perfect rugby, tactical structures and adaptations, and a promise to themselves that they would regret nothing. All of these values were predetermined and instilled through a systematic and calculated approach to rugby developed by their coaches.
The Coaches’ Journey to the 1991 Women’s Rugby World Cup
Among the business districts of Sydney, Australia you may find Chris Leach, a successful and articulate business consultant known for being direct and influential. Growing up in Zambia in an environment where the community lived through the saying “it takes a village to raise a child.” Leach learned to be prepared and help those around him. From these lessons he was inspired to take on early opportunities to coach various sports and soon found himself in love with sharing his knowledge and passion for rugby.
His first rugby coaching experience was while he was attending the University of Johannesburg. He helped out with an Under-15s team where, as he said, “the fun we had was an early indication of one of the great rewards” of his life. In his first coaching experience, he felt an unrelenting passion for the preparation and intellectual side of rugby. He learned from his early coaching experiences how important it was to not only train, but train to win; to condition the body and mind to strive for perfection and victory.
Inspired by Rod MacQueen and Phil Jackson, Leach fell in love with learning and then teaching how to win. He was consumed with the tactical aspect of the game and relished opportunities to adapt to various challenges on the field. Learning quickly that to be a great coach one must facilitate his players to bring out the best in themselves and that motivation does not come from without but from within, Chris took his new knowledge to the United States. Here he coached in Minnesota and led his teams to various honors including a club level National Championship.
Kathy Flores, a loose-forward from the ’91 team and a player/coach on the team that lost to Minnesota in the National Championship, was impressed with the intensity Chris brought to the teams he coached, making no distinction between men and women while holding everyone to the elite standards required to be a winning team.
According to Flores, “Chris’s passion for rugby fit well with the players of that time, treating us not as women playing an unpopular sport, but as committed and determined athletes.”
Armed with an overall coaching philosophy of “winning tastes better,” and holding his players accountable to elite standards, Chris was enjoying success at the club level in Minnesota and was invited to apply for the Women’s National Team Assistant Coaching position. After meeting with the Women’s National Selection Committee and applying for the job, Chris found himself flying to Boston to meet Kevin O’Brien, the team’s head coach.
The two talked about the values and philosophy that would need to be instilled to not only coach a team in international rugby, but to win at the highest level. Chris then made the rounds at several club level matches and tournaments where he met some of the Eagle prospects and brought them into his hopes for creating a “world class team.” Chris fell into deep introspection trying to find whether or not he could deliver on not only the hopes of the players, but also his own expectations of creating a championship team. Always ready to accept a new challenge and an opportunity to learn, Chris accepted the position.
Soon O’Brien and Leach were heading up selection trials and building the team they were going to take to Wales for the first ever Women’s Rugby World Cup. During the selection trials, the team leadership realized that the campaign would be fraught with challenges. These varied from the unexpected death of the first choice halfback a few months before the campaign to an extreme lack of funding. The lack of financial resources was displayed perfectly in the event where the team received their new kit for the World Cup.
Two days before the first match of the tournament, the team found themselves wearing one-size-fits-all tracksuits, and, according to Coach Leach, “luckily that size was XXXXXXL, so we knew they’d fit our tall timber and no one else unless we were inventive. Which, of course, we were, by getting boot laces, threading them into the seam of the pants as ties then stapling the extra folds as we saw fit.”
The team also had no room for injury, was outsized by most teams in the tournament, and lacked international experience. Without quality depth in certain positions, the coaches adapted and moved players around to fill gaps, but the team still experienced drop offs in skill.
Among all of these challenges though, the coaching philosophies of the coaches saw opportunity to adapt and prevail. “We used the challenges as tools to motivate and bind the group” says Leach, “and those instances were of little consequence in the overall experience.”
After the final selections had been made, the preparation and build-up to the World Cup got underway. The team traveled to Cardiff where the inaugural Women’s Rugby World Cup would be held. Focusing on one ultimate team philosophy and recruiting the team leaders to implement these values on a day-to-day basis the team began to take form. Throughout their weeks of preparation Leach and O’Brien described and set expectations for the on-field dynamics of the team. They emphasized a perfect style of rugby, teaching the athletes how to make no mistakes in practice and thus play without error once match day came.
“I also spent a lot of extra time with individual players on their skills improvement, which meant that they had to invest a lot of time and be willing to do so – they were totally willing,” said Leach. And keeping true to the “harder, stronger, faster, and without mistakes” mentality the coaches continued to hold the players accountable to the standards agreed upon.
“The coaches expected us to work hard and to win the title. We didn’t want to disappoint them or the team,” added Flores.
The coaches also wanted the team to enjoy the experience and respect the opportunity at hand. They focused on all things rugby, teaching the women about the history of the region and the importance of rugby in Welsh culture.
It was an emotional journey for Coach O’Brien. Not only was he coaching the Eagles in the first ever Women’s World Cup, but the tournament was taking place in his home country, Wales. He saw this as an opportunity to share the nation’s culture and his inherent love for rugby with the team.
O’Brien is a rugby scholar currently coaching the men’s club at Champlain College in northern Vermont. Coach O’Brien loves the culture of rugby, being immersed in it at an early age in his home country. With every team he coaches, he shares the same passion with his players and completely delves himself into the camaraderie and intellectual aspect of the sport.
According to many of his former players, O’Brien brought a ferocious passion for the game to every team he coached, and taught his players that it wasn’t just a game, but a way of life.
In the late 1980’s Kevin O’Brien found himself coaching Beantown, a strong and storied women’s club from the Boston area.
“Kevin was a rival coach from Beantown, we played against each other a lot,” says Flores, a player on east coast rival Florida State University who found herself up against O’Brien’s coaching philosophies more than once.
According to Flores, although they were rivals O’Brien treated her as a colleague and fellow rugby intellectual, appreciative of her commitment and knowledge of the game. After some regional success and numerous National Championships, Coach O’Brien was asked by the Women’s National Committee to head up their World Cup campaign. Kevin jumped at the opportunity to be involved with another rugby experience and coach a high-level team on its way to his home country.
Path to Perfection: 1991 Women’s Rugby World Cup
In Wales, the Eagles found themselves up against teams with superior experience, and talent, but the lessons of the coaches shaped the Eagles into a squad completely determined to win a title. Due to their practices in flawless and intellectual rugby and the life lessons of self-belief taught by their two unrelenting coaches, the Eagles would wade through the pool stages (they beat the Netherlands 7-0 and the USSR 46-0) and found themselves up against the world’s best team, New Zealand’s Black Ferns.
The match took place on April 12, 1991 under perfect conditions, a blessing in Wales for that time of year. According to Coach Leach, the team formulated their whole campaign plan around making it to the semifinal, and the Eagles knew that this game would be the most challenging. Utilizing the technology at hand in those days, the coaches studied film of the Black Ferns and knew that victory would be determined by which team made fewer errors and stayed true to their game plan.
“We made fewer mistakes, we adapted best during the game, and we executed under pressure,” said Leach. According to Coach Leach, the team had been conditioned to play rugby as “smart warriors” and the Eagles did just that.
They overcame the Black Ferns in the semis 7-0 in a tough and tiring match. The Eagles played sublimely. Possibly as an artful ode to his overall rugby philosophy Leach, when asked about the emotions he felt after beating the Black Ferns, simply said, “That night I knew we would win the final.”
In front of a crowd of about 5,000 people, the Eagles went on to control England in the final 19-6 and take the title of the inaugural Women’s Rugby World Cup. They executed their game plan perfectly and each individual athlete played a style of rugby where regret would hold no place in the post-match locker room.
“I remember observing the players’ confidence grow as the game progressed, and we shut out their top guns,” says Coach Leach. Each of them played hard, smart rugby; acting on the lessons of rugby and life that had been implanted in their hearts from day one of the campaign.
They believed in themselves and accepted nothing less than victory. Through these values, which were prioritized by O’Brien and Leach, the 1991 USA Eagles earned the title of “World’s Best.”
The 1991 Eagles were honored by then first lady, Barbara Bush. O'Brien is pictured on the far right.
A Lasting Legacy
“I was blessed to be a part of it and felt immense pride and joy for the players,” says Leach. The ideals of acting on passion, striving for perfection, and challenging oneself to adapt to life’s obstacles inspired an entire generation of women’s athletes to pursue their dreams, hold themselves accountable to those standards, and to challenge themselves to become better athletes and better people.
“They treated us as players, not as women,” said Flores. Flores went on to coach, eventually earning the Head Coach position of the USA Women’s National Team in 2002. She held that position for eight years, and is currently the head coach of the dominant Berkeley All-Blues.
Living a life with no regrets is a goal for many people these days. We have been told it is not the achievement that matters but the fact that one may look back on the journey and know that everything was done in the effort to become happy and content with life’s battles. We have been taught to try and pursue our dreams to the point at which it is either achieved or all possibilities have been drained out in the pursuit. Few can say they have done this.
The people involved in the 1991 USA Eagles World Cup campaign are a part of that few, and when asked what it’s like to achieve a dream, Chris Leach explains it as, in his ever simplistic and philosophical approach, “relief.”