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USA Rugby legend Kathy Flores “was always trailblazing”
Following the tragic death of Kathy Flores earlier this month, we spoke to USA great Jamie Burke and current Women’s Eagles coach Rob Cain about the impact she had on the women’s game.
USA Rugby will pay tribute to one of its greatest servants on Monday when the late Kathy Flores is honoured before and during the World Rugby Pacific Four Series match against Canada.
Flores, who passed away from cancer earlier this month, captained USA Women in the team’s first ever international, against Canada in 1987, and was part of the team that won the inaugural women’s Rugby World Cup in Wales four years later.
Having hung up her playing boots following Rugby World Cup 1994, she embarked on a coaching career every bit as successful and led her country to two further Rugby World Cups, in Canada in 2006 and England in 2010.
Flores’ contributions to the game in the USA were remembered ahead of the Men’s Eagles encounter with New Zealand last weekend. On Monday in Glendale, the hosts’ players will wear black armbands and special jerseys with the great number eight’s initials embroidered onto them.
A moment of silence will also be observed prior to the anthems at Infinity Park, while a special commemorative video will be displayed on the stadium’s videoboard and via social media at half-time.
“Kathy was synonymous with rugby in the USA and particularly the development of the game,” Women’s Eagles assistant coach Jamie Burke told World Rugby.
“When you look at her role on the early national team and into a World Cup championship, and then subsequently playing and coaching Berkeley through multiple national championships and then heading to Brown and becoming one of the first varsity coaches.
“She basically was always trailblazing throughout the women's rugby landscape.”
Kathy Flores was our Captain. pic.twitter.com/TPr6xf8h5h— USA Rugby (@USARugby) October 21, 2021
Setting a very high standard
Burke first encountered Flores when she was an aspiring number eight in her early 20s. Flores spotted Burke’s undoubted talent but advised her that if she wanted to represent the USA internationally then she would need to switch positions, to the front-row.
“She came up to me at an all-star event and asked me about my aspirations. She said: ‘Have you ever thought about playing for the national team?’
“I was like, yeah, and without even batting an eye, no change of expression, [she] just said, ‘you better learn to prop’,” Burke said, laughing at the memory.
“So, that was the point at which I transitioned to trying to figure out what propping was all about, and the rest is history.”
It was a transition that proved highly successful as Burke played under Flores for both Cal Berkeley and the Women’s Eagles, playing for her mentor at two Rugby World Cups.
“As a coach she was very straightforward,” Burke added. “She had an interesting balance of deadpan humour, but also being really intense and holding you to a very high standard.
“You knew what was expected of you and when you did things well and you got that praise or support, you knew you'd done something really well.
“She was not hypercritical, right, but she was not hyper-effusive and so in those moments when things went really well, you knew it.”
“A wonderful person”
The high-point of Flores’ playing career came in Cardiff in April, 1991 when she formed part of a mobile back-row alongside Clare Godwin and Morgan Whitehead that pulled England out of their comfort zone and helped the USA win the first women’s Rugby World Cup final.
According to Burke, Flores was “humble in a lot of ways about her role in the ’91 World Cup team” and the USA assistant is unsure how her former coach would have reacted to hearing the tributes that have come her way over the last 10 days.
“It's funny, I think she would probably be of two minds,” Burke said.
“She was always a relatively private person, so I think in some instances she'd be like, ‘Oh, why are they making such a big fuss?’
“That would be on the one side and on the other side, I think she would feel honoured to hear the level of impact that her contribution to rugby had on this country, on rugby as a whole and on women's rugby in particular.
“I think one of the things that perhaps we are not good at collectively as humans is necessarily communicating the impact people have on our lives or on our communities while we can still express it to them.
“It's often after the fact when we think, Oh, if only we had said these things. So, I think that she would probably be honoured to be hearing all of the accolades, but also, for me, I wish she'd been able to hear more of them while she was still with us.”
It is fitting that Canada will provide the opposition in Glendale, almost exactly 34 years after Flores captained the USA in the first ever women’s Can-Am fixture.
“Kathy was a wonderful leader,” Current Women’s Eagles coach Rob Cain said. “She was a wonderful person and she's going to be missed greatly by everyone within the USA rugby community.”