GLOUCESTER, 10 Oct – Chris O’Brien knows Kingsholm well. Go back far enough, some will remember the young fly-half when the Americans faced the All Blacks in Gloucester during the 1991 Rugby World Cup.
It was the first and only World Cup game to be played at the famous ground before this year’s tournament kicked off and O’Brien, who is now the Eagles’ kicking coach (bottom photo), is relishing a return to the ground on Sunday for their final Pool B match – a place where his memories of taking on the world champions live on.
“It was a pretty big moment for me and the cool part was that we all knew each other because a lot of us played sevens together,” O’Brien said. “Michael Jones (middle photo), the All Blacks flanker, was my roommate in 1988, when we played in Hawaii for a year. The All Blacks had just won the World Cup in 1987.
“I don’t know how they lured him to Hawaii but Michael, myself and Danny Kaleopa, who played for Western Samoa, all lived together and played for the Harlequins team in Hawaii.
“We played together so it was cool to come up against him. What I do remember about that game was when he hit me. I knew it was him because it was so late and he had already told me that he wanted to hit me at least one time.” (Main photo: Chris O'Brien, No 10, for the USA v NZL at RWC 1991)
During the early days of his career, O’Brien kicked for the New York Jets, the NFL franchise, for three years although deep down he knew his sporting passion lay with rugby.
In the family
“I started rugby a lot younger,” he continued. “My dad played rugby so I grew up on the sidelines. If rugby was around, it would have been my first choice. But I wasn’t able to play until I was 15 or 16 when my brother started throwing boots at me and said go out on the field.
“I kicked a little bit for the Jets. I put some time into it but not a lot of time. I had just joined the USA rugby team and started to do a bit of travelling and that’s when the New York Jets accommodated me to go to South Africa on tour.
“I came into camp late, which was unheard of for a rookie, but they allowed me to do it and, while I was trying to do both, I stuck with rugby. Rugby has been around for a long time (in America) but, when I played, most guys wouldn’t touch a rugby ball until they are 20 years old.
“Now, our kids are touching the ball when they are six or seven. Right now, it’s the fastest-growing sport in the country and you can see that in schools and at Under-20s level. It has changed, dramatically.”
USA now take on Japan at Kingsholm, following three-straight defeats in the tournament thus far. The Eagles lost to Tonga 40-12 at the ground last November and, although the result is no far cry from the 46-6 defeat at the hands of New Zealand 24 years ago, O’Brien says the team has improved massively.
“When I walked out at Kingsholm on that November tour, I looked around and thought, ‘I’ve been here before… this is where we played the All Blacks’.
“It was really cool and I went back to the hotel to pull up some old photos of the game – pictures of the Shed and people standing up behind the ‘end-goal’. But it didn’t have that grandstand.
“Nowadays, it’s great to watch it through the eyes of the players now. It’s fun to teach these guys and give them as much help as you can. But it’s so much bigger now. They are going into these huge stadia while our biggest game in '91 was at Twickenham.
“It’s great coaching them, especially with that mix of professionals and club players, who try to get in as much time and experience as they can. Here, we’re just trying to get them on the same page and refine them as much as we can.”