Rugby union will make its strongest claim for the attention of a U.S. audience when the Eagles host the World Cup champion New Zealand All Blacks on Saturday in a rare meeting on American soil.
The test match is expected to attract a capacity crowd of 61,500 at Chicago’s Soldier Field, amounting to almost three times the previous record crowd for a rugby match in the United States: 20,181 watched the U.S. Eagles play Ireland in Houston last year.
More importantly for the profile of rugby, the match will be broadcast to a potential TV audience of millions, many who may be seeing the sport for the first time.
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The extra exposure gives rugby the chance to reach a vast new audience a year ahead of the World Cup and two years from its return to the Olympics, this time in a the seven-a-side format.
It may be a slight impediment, though, that the Eagles are rated as almost no chance of winning. The U.S. national team is No. 18 in the world rankings – behind countries such as Georgia and Romania – and is facing a team that has won almost 80 percent of its matches across the last century.
The top-ranked All Blacks are world champions, favorites to defend their title at next year’s World Cup and won 22 consecutive tests until a recent narrow loss to South Africa recently.
The U.S. and New Zealand teams have met on only three occasions and New Zealand has won each time: 51-3 in 1913 at Berkeley, California – 11 years before the United States became the last Olympic champions – 53-6 at San Diego in 1980 and 46-6 during the pool stages of the 1991 World Cup.
While New Zealand has selected a second-string lineup, resting some of its leading players ahead of tests against England, Scotland and Wales, anything less than a substantial win would be surprising.
The New Zealand Rugby Union will argue that its mission is ambassadorial – to showcase rugby in the United States. Although Saturday’s match also owes a great deal to desire of the All Blacks’ major sponsor, the American insurance group AIG, to show off its prized sporting property in its own backyard.
It has been a major ambition of rugby for decades to broaden its global audience and to ditch its image as a sport played mostly in countries of the former British Empire and in France.
Rugby faces the obstacle that it might seem quaint or arcane to a U.S. audience – football without helmets – despite its role as one of the progenitors of American football and the fact that it is intensely physical.
For many years, the sport held small outposts in the U.S., mainly in college towns where rugby’s on- and off-field culture won devotees.
But its advantage as the All Blacks visit for the third time is that the game is now much more solidly and professionally established.
Six members of the U.S. lineup play professionally in England and others are either based abroad or have trialed for European teams. Many also play for the U.S. team on the International Rugby Board’s world sevens circuit and could follow that route to the 2016 Olympics in Brazil.
Rugby in the United States has been growing, too, in the last five years.
”It’s significantly bigger than it was, but we’ve still got a long way to go,” USA Rugby chief executive Nigel Melville was quoted as saying. ”A professional league is on the agenda, it’s just how quickly we can make it happen.”
U.S. captain Todd Clever hopes Saturday’s match will help turn American football fans to rugby.
”Everybody’s still kind of in shock that rugby has sold out an NFL stadium,” Clever told Britain’s The Guardian newspaper. ”It’s great to have the American public get behind rugby and with NBC picking up the game to show live everybody’s really pumped to see the All Blacks, to be part of it.”
All Blacks head coach Steve Hansen said the United States could become a stronger power in world rugby if it could take advantage of its population size and the skills of players already developed through American football.
”You’ve got 300 million people here. Some of them are going to be pretty good at it,” Hansen said.
While the starting lineup for Saturday’s match is not New Zealand’s best, American fans will still see some of the sport’s biggest stars. Backrower Keiran Read, who will captain New Zealand, was last year’s World Rugby Player of the Year and flyhalf Dan Carter, who will start on the bench, is rugby’s top test scorer.