CHICAGO (AP) America’s history on rugby’s world stage can be summed up in two sentences.
Team USA took home the gold from both the 1920 and 1924 Olympics. And then, just like the Chicago Cubs, took the rest of the century off.
The timing couldn’t be much better for a rare stateside visit from New Zealand’s storied All Blacks, who face the USA’s Golden Eagles on Saturday at sold-out Soldier Field (capacity: 61,500). Even though it’s only an exhibition, the match will be televised nationally on NBC and provide a snapshot of where USA Rugby – after nearly a decade of investment and effort – stands on the road back to respectability.
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The Golden Eagles have already qualified for the 2015 World Cup and hope to do the same for the 2016 Summer Olympics, where rugby (the seven-a-side version, instead of 15 players each) will return as a medal sport for the first time since the Americans won. Despite those and other accomplishments in recent years, especially by the U.S. women’s and youth teams, the key to enjoying Saturday’s match might be not to expect too much.
The All-Blacks are rugby’s 1927 Yankees, a dynasty that’s claimed two of the seven World Cups played and has been almost unbeatable (34 wins, 2 draws and 2 losses) since coach Steve Hansen took over in 2012. They’re fast, skilled, bruising, experienced, deep at every spot and led by captain Richie McCaw, the most capped New Zealander of all-time and the game’s only three-time international player of the year.
The team’s pre-game ”Haka,” a Maori rite that resembles a line-dance with bad intentions, could turn out to be the highlight of the afternoon. If nothing else, American audiences might appreciate a game with every player handling the ball, no TV timeouts, an occasional scrum instead of huddles after every play and – relatively – lower-level violence.
The only suspense after kickoff figures to be the margin of New Zealand’s win. That will be determined in large part by how many of the squad’s senior players Hansen trots out, and for how long. After a promotional tour of Chicago, the All-Blacks cross the Atlantic and get down to business: facing more-traditional and much-tougher rivals England, Scotland and Wales on successive Saturdays.
Midfield back Conrad Smith, who’s represented New Zealand 83 times, was asked to put the match-up in terms American sports fans could relate to. He thought for a moment, smiled and said, ”About the same as our basketball guys playing yours.”
New Zealand’s basketball ranking – No. 21 in the world – is almost on par with the USA’s rugby perch – No. 18 – and the chance of an upset is roughly the same. Small wonder someone challenged USA coach Mike Tolkin to come up with a ”realistic” goal.
”To get the respect of our opponents,” he said. ”If we walk off the field leaving our blood and guts out there, we’ll be satisfied.”
The stewards of the sport, though, are hoping for a bit more.
The sellout nearly tripled the previous attendance record for a stateside match and it represents rugby’s latest attempt to get a foothold in the lucrative, but already crowded U.S. sports market. It came together because of mutual sponsorship ties and the connections of USA Rugby chief executive Nigel Melville, a former captain of England’s national team. Melville also pulled strings to get several other overseas-based U.S. players back for the match.
”We saw the impact the last (soccer) World Cup had on the U.S., the progression that game made here over the course of a decade or so,” said Brett Gosper, chief executive of the International Rugby Board. ”This is a country that certainly appreciates contact sport, though our game is quite different from American football.”
Rugby was just as big as football on these shores once. They parted ways over the forward pass and football peeled off the lion’s share of the colleges and the audience.
Since 2006, USA Rugby has spread around seed money, starting both youth and coaching development programs. But football castoffs still provide the bulk of the elite players. About two-thirds of the Golden Eagles played in high school and several in college.
The United States, with a population nearing 320 million, now has about 120,000 registered competitive players – about the same number as New Zealand, whose population is around 4.5 million. But Samu Manoa – who was born in California, is of Tongan descent and plays professionally for the Northampton Saints in England’s top-tier league – might be the lone Golden Eagle good enough to crack the New Zealand squad. As if they didn’t know it, the Golden Eagles are reminded at nearly every turn.
”Do you feel like you’ve got to put on a good show?” a reporter asked USA’s Danny Barrett.
”We want to put on a good show,” Barrett replied, ”for ourselves.”