How Laurie O’Reilly’s ‘larger than life’ passion for rugby helped women’s game soar

The late New Zealand lawyer played a pivotal role in the growth of women's rugby, not only in his own country but around the world as well.

World Rugby Hall of Fame inductee Anna Richards had been dropped by her Canterbury netball coach, Kay O’Reilly, when she received a call that would steer her sporting life in a new direction.

It came from Laurie O’Reilly, Kay’s husband, and her law lecturer at the University of Canterbury.

“All of a sudden I had Sundays off and Laurie persuaded me to come down to watch rugby, which was a Laurie euphemism for come down and play,” Richards recalled to World Rugby.

“I went to watch and I ended up playing. So, he was very good at recruiting players from different sports and getting them along. 

“His one great love, obviously, was rugby.”

Richards’ experience was not a unique one. Of the 26 players who travelled to Wales to represent New Zealand in the first women’s Rugby World Cup in 1991, under the stewardship of O’Reilly, at least a third had followed a similar path.

“He was very good at picking girls who would actually be good players,” Richards added. 

“A few of the ’91 team were crossover athletes from netball, hockey and soccer, and sports like that. 

“So he was a bit of a horse breeder, I suppose. He was a good picker of those players.”

Advocate for women’s rugby

O’Reilly was described as a “fearless advocate” following his death, from cancer, in 1998. Nowhere was that more apparent than in his devotion to rugby, and particularly the women’s game.

A well-respected family lawyer in Christchurch, O’Reilly served as New Zealand’s Commissioner for Children between 1994-97, and he achieved an incredible amount in his 55 years.

His work as a university lecturer, meanwhile, brought him into contact with a generation of young women looking for a sporting outlet. 

And his bulging contacts book, amassed both through his profession and his role coaching the University of Canterbury’s men’s team, helped him to play a pivotal role in the growth of the women’s game both in New Zealand and around the world. 

“Laurie had this larger than life love for rugby and he also had a very good eye for an athlete,” Richards said.

“He was very enthusiastic. Technically, he was great. He gave up a huge amount of his time to just promote the sport. 

“He was also a very well renowned lawyer, so it's not as if he had a lot of time, but he always made it. And his house was an open house to all the waifs and strays of the rugby community. We always used to congregate round at his place and talk rugby and raid his fridge.”

Lasting legacy

In 1988, O’Reilly coached the Crusadettes team — featuring Richards — that toured the USA and Europe, and a year later he selected the first ever squad to represent New Zealand in a women’s match.

O’Reilly also played an integral role in organising RugbyFest 1990 in Christchurch, a two-week women's rugby festival that included an international tournament featuring teams from the Netherlands, USA and USSR.

Japan sent a team to Christchurch as well, to compete in the club section, and it was through O’Reilly that the organisers of the inaugural women’s Rugby World Cup were put in touch with the Asian nation’s female rugby community.

In fact, the lawyer’s standing in the global women’s game was such that he was able to suggest a couple of tweaks to the format of the 1991 tournament that were taken on board by the organising committee.

Carol Isherwood, who stayed at O’Reilly’s house during a tour of New Zealand with Richmond in 1989, described the Kiwi as a “leading light in the women’s game”.

“He did a lot of work in those early days,” Isherwood added.

New Zealand were beaten in the semi-finals of that first Rugby World Cup, losing a physical contest to eventual champions, the USA 7-0 at Cardiff Arms Park.

It was thanks, in part, to the work done by O’Reilly that the team were able to line up in South Wales sporting a silver fern, the unmistakable emblem of New Zealand rugby, on their kit.

Having decided not to compete in the next tournament in Scotland three years later, New Zealand’s women claimed their first Rugby World Cup title in Amsterdam in 1998 — four months and one day after O’Reilly’s death.

The late coach’s legacy lives on in New Zealand today, as matches between the Black Ferns and Australia’s Wallaroos are contested for the O’Reilly Cup (formerly known as the Laurie O'Reilly Memorial Trophy). 

It is a fitting tribute to a remarkable person whose “one great love” was rugby.

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Last updated: Aug 24, 2020, 8:36:57 AM
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