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Including their sixth consecutive victory over Canada at Canada Cup in 1996 and the seventh a year later, the USA Women’s Eagles carried a three-game winning streak into the Women’s Rugby World Cup 1998 kickoff. A trip below the equator at the end of the 1997 summer proved fruitful, as a newer Australia side forced the U.S. to defend its lines a bit more than its border rival had.
Head Coach Franck Boivert’s Stanford University teams (men and women) had reached their respective “Final Four” playoff stages, which happened to coincide with the U.S.’s first match in the Netherlands against Russia. Assistant Joe Kelly took the reins for the May 2 match, an 84-0 shutout, while Stanford men qualified for the next day’s Division I National Championship Final half a world away in San Francisco.
Despite four-team pools, teams competing at WRWC played just two matches ahead of the knockout rounds. The Eagles finished off play in Pool B with a 38-16 win against Spain – with Boivert in the coach’s box – drawing a 1-1 Scotland in the Quarterfinals. The U.S. was one of four unbeaten teams after two matches, while Canada also did well enough for a Quarterfinal berth.
Like most opponents that had lined up against the Eagles at WRWCs, Scotland came out on the losing end of a 25-10 result. France, another 2-0 team in pool play, looked the likely Semifinal opposition for Boivert’s squad, but the plucky Canadians grinded to a 9-7 victory.
Even with the WRWC’s brief history, there had never been a rivalry matchup in the latter stages of the knockouts at the tournament quite like the Can-Am in 1998. Both teams knew it, too, but the Eagles crossed the try line again and again on their way to a 46-6 win, keeping their unbeaten streak in the rivalry – and World Cup hopes – alive.
On the other side of the bracket, however, was the team that had been ranked fourth due to its missing of the ’94 World Cup: New Zealand. The Black Ferns conceded nine points in three matches leading to the Semifinal against England, and defeated the reigning champion handily.
New Zealand’s path to the Final was not unlike the U.S.’s free-scoring exploits of ’94, only the Black Ferns were able to finish the job in the Netherlands. The Eagles had been directed to continue their attacking philosophy despite the heavy defeat handed to them by New Zealand two years prior.
“I wanted to make sure this Final was going to be spectacular to promote women’s rugby, and also because it was our philosophy,” Boivert recalled. “I thought it was fun to coach and the players took a lot of enjoyment out of playing that type of rugby.”
The Eagles ended up playing right into New Zealand’s hands, as the Black Ferns’ skills and technique were marginally better than their American counterparts in open play. Ironically, the strength of the ’91 team that shocked a favored New Zealand – the forward pack – went underutilized in ’98.
“In the end, when I look back, it was maybe a mistake [to keep that style of play] because that was also the strength of the Black Ferns,” Boivert said. “We didn’t have the talent we used to have and their talent in the back line was superior to ours. Therefore, I should’ve used a different strategy. In fact, in that game I thought our back row was excellent, and should’ve insisted more on the fringes instead of trying to play our style of rugby.
“I wanted our team to stay true to their identity.”
The U.S. may have lost the Final, 46-12, in yet another spectacular display of rugby between the world’s top teams – at the first WRWC to receive official sanctioning, no less – but the feat of a third Final appearance in as many tournaments was not lost on the global community. Only the resurfacing of a dominant New Zealand team garnered more attention, causing several unions to better support their women’s teams in the years leading up to the next WRWC in Spain.
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USA Women’s Eagles | Women’s Rugby World Cup 1998