Twenty-six years ago today, Patty Jervey and her USA team-mates were on cloud nine after beating England 19-6 in the final of Women's Rugby World Cup 1991 at Cardiff Arms Park – even if they perhaps didn't quite realise what they had achieved over the course of nine days in Wales.
Victories over the Netherlands (7-0) in Pontypool and USSR (46-0) in Cardiff set up a semi-final showdown with New Zealand at the Arms Park, a match won 7-0 and which remained the Black Ferns’ only World Cup defeat until they lost to Ireland in the 2014 edition.
All that stood between the Women's Eagles and glory was England, who had impressed on their way to the final.
“I had no clue what I was stepping into,” admitted Jervey, who was inducted into the World Rugby Hall of Fame in 2014. “I just knew there was a major rugby tournament where I had prepared, the timing was right and I was fortunately selected to play for my country.
“So I did what we all did, stole from Peter to pay Paul, took time off work, bought the requisite Lands’ End sweater and skirt and otherwise scrambled to make the trip happen. Next thing I knew I was heading across the pond alongside five of my Florida State team-mates, representing the USA for the adventure of a lifetime.
“The Netherlands game was a cold, miserable outing – torrential rain and wind. I recall being elated that we pulled out the win as we celebrated with hot tea in the shower. The only problem was that we were shaking so hard from the cold that the cups were empty by the time they got to our mouths!
“I recall the Black Ferns doing their version of the haka and our response was to turn to each other and tune them out. No disrespect was intended, but we had a job to do and we were not going to be distracted.
White House guests
“It’s crazy, but I remember very little of the final. Most of the snapshots in my brain are just that, snapshots that friends and family took and shared. But I do remember looking up at the scoreboard after the final whistle, seeing 19-6 and thinking ‘holy shit, we did it!”
They returned home as world champions thanks to tries from Clare Godwin (two), Chris Harju and Patty Connell – the first American rugby side to taste success on the international stage since the USA men won the Olympic gold medal at Paris 1924 – but slipped in largely unnoticed … well, apart from an invitation to meet the First Lady.
“We were invited to the White House but as you had to pay your own way, the whole team was not able to attend. There is a priceless picture of the squad alongside the First Lady Barbara Bush throwing a rugby ball. Looking back, I wish I had been able to make that trip, but beyond that, it was pretty much back to reality.”
Three years later, Jervey and her team-mates headed back “across the pond” once more to Scotland but were unable to defend their title, falling at the final hurdle as England reversed the 1991 result to triumph 38-23.
There would be more heartbreak in 1998 as this time New Zealand beat USA in the third final, this time in Amsterdam, but Jervey has plenty of happy memories to look back on after becoming the first player to play in five Women’s Rugby World Cups in 2006.
“My memories are the enduring friendships built at training, travelling, bunking up, pre-match, post-match, match analysis and downtime,” explained Jervey, who won 40 caps in an international career that began in 1989.
“Witnessing the running of the sled dog pack at the home of our team liaison and seeing a double rainbow in Edmonton, playing touch on the beach in Barcelona, experiencing the tulip gardens and the vla dessert (Dutch custard) in Amsterdam.
Setting the bar high
“Being ‘duty girls’ for the day and washing and drying load upon load of nasty training gear, the plush grass of Murrayfield when we toured the facility and grounds as visitors, not players. The amazing old hotel in Cardiff with our nasty wet boots hanging from the windowsills and our wet socks over the radiators.
“Hearing the fly-half call a play that I am pretty sure she created on the fly, running the line I knew I was supposed to run, seeing the defensive line part like the Red Sea, catching the ball in slow motion and then seeing it all move forward in double time and that there are now four points on the board.
“Seeing our captains Barb Bond and Mary Sullivan hosting the cup and looking down at the medal around my neck. I am honoured and incredibly proud to have played alongside an incredible group of women and played for two great coaches. Together we set the stage, together we set the bar.”
Twenty-five years on from lifting the trophy, the squad came together again last April for a reunion at the Atlanta Sevens, an occasion that brought the memories flooding back for Jervey, especially when coach Kevin O’Brien addressed them once again.
“It was the first time I had seen many of the girls in several years as we are all still pretty well scattered across the country, but thankfully the majority of the squad and head coach Kevin O’Brien made the trip,” recalled Jervey.
“It was amazing to pick up where we left off and reminisce about the glory days. It warmed my heart to see how happy everyone was at being honoured by USA Rugby. We had our own suite to watch the Atlanta Sevens and in one of the breaks we took to field to be officially recognised for our win.
“We had a dinner complete with a slideshow and many speeches. Kevin’s words took us all back in time and you could feel the energy in the room escalate just like we were in the locker room prior to kick-off many moons ago.”
They will be together again later this year with the WRWC 1991 winning squad to be inducted into the USA Rugby Hall of Fame.