Twickenham passes the NFL test

7:12 PM GMT

LONDON — Hot dogs, cheerleaders, tailgates, touchdowns and the most remarkable pick-six — Twickenham had never experienced anything quite like Sunday’s inaugural NFL game at the famous old rugby stadium.

For 107 years Twickenham had only played host to one sport. But that pureness was shattered by the biggest sporting show in town as the “hosts” Los Angeles Rams fell to the New York Giants. It was gridiron on rugby’s hallowed turf, but on-field, it was the perfect marriage.

On Sunday morning walking around south west London, shirts adorned with Eli Manning’s No. 10 and Odell Beckham Jr.’s No. 13 were seen in cafes, bars and on train platforms, with all heading toward this corner of the capital. While for so long NFL has been a Wembley experience — Manning played in the first game back in 2007 — the horizons have now been expanded to Twickenham with this the first of three games there.

“It’s great to be back,” Manning said. “The experience was smoother this time, with all the logistics. Being here at Twickenham, it’s a great facility, stadium and the fans were wonderful. I think they had a better understanding of the game than back in 2007. It was a great environment to play in.”

It was not without its logistical difficulties — the train network was stretched by the 74,121 who journeyed to Twickenham, bringing back memories of the Rugby World Cup where it was similarly tested. In many ways Sunday’s game rekindled recollections of last year when the rugby-focused world had attention solely trained on Twickenham and the tailgate party was a similar experience of sporting joy and anticipation.

Oh it’s busy at Twickenham.

— Tom Hamilton (@tomESPNscrum) October 23, 2016

Supporters adorned shirts from all 32 NFL franchises, while legendary players past and present featured on the back of shirts pristine and well-worn. They waited patiently in the long queues for bars and to get into the tailgate party — something which needs to be addressed ahead of next year’s match — but the feeling of excitement, the impending experience of something alien to these shores yet so popular meant there was a palpable enthusiasm on the cool, autumnal air.

“It took us a while to get in,” said Geoff, a Dolphins fan of 20 years experiencing his first London NFL match. “But it’s a small thing to get through when you have this to look forward to. To watch this with my son is a special thing.”

Figures from other sports featured in the match coverage with Bayern Munich’s David Alaba pitchside as was Crystal Palace manager Alan Pardew whose take on the match was: “It’s so different, it’s almost like it’s a foreign sport.”

For rugby aficionados — those who have spent their Novembers, Februaries and Marches paying their annual pilgrimage to Twickenham to take in the traditional west car park, singing “Swing, Low” and then assessing England’s triumph or failings back in the comfort of over-crowded pubs complete with plastic pint glasses — this may have felt like sacrilege to see NFL here.

But at intertwined within this game’s DNA was an appreciation for where it was being played. World Cup-winning captain Martin Johnson was introduced to the crowd, complete with a version of Land of Hope and Glory, and received a cheer to rival Beckham. Then current England players James Haskell, Anthony Watson and Jonathan Joseph received similar treatment.

The week running up to the match saw players from the Rams asked about their rugby knowledge while their punter Johnny Heckler was given a kicking clinic from Danny Cipriani at England’s team base Pennyhill Park which had been completely taken over by the Los Angeles franchise for the week.

Such nods to Twickenham’s history may become less frequent as this match becomes more ingrained in the annual programme. Other than the various rugby cameos, this was a grand, NFL occasion.

Twickenham had been completely taken over for the occasion with the various megastores switched entirely to NFL merchandise. The various pre and mid-match entertainment saw Craig David ditch his usual routine of ‘chilling’ on a Sunday to perform the pre-game show with Nicole Scherzinger singing the U.S. anthem. Mid-match cheerleaders patrolled the outskirts of the field while t-shirts were fired into the crowd by the ‘Pepsi Girls’.

Within the bowl — coined Twicker-bowl — the pitch was pristine with various tweaks made to the old stadium to ensure no supporter would have a bad sight line and the teams had every luxury they’d be used to back stateside.

The on-field interest seemed to peak around the Giants’ wide-receiver Beckham and for the week running up to Sunday’s game, social media was predominantly awash with three letters OBJ rather than NFL. Having nursed a hip injury during the week, it was touch and go to whether he would be fit but, in his own words, “God gave me the strength to get through it.” He failed to get on the score sheet, but whenever he caught the ball, the old stadium erupted.

“I love London and the atmosphere was great,” Beckham Jr said. “Hopefully we’ll be back here next year.”

Odell Beckham Jr dominated the pre-match build-up to Sunday’s match at Twickenham. (Photo by Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images)

Rather than Beckham it was Rams wide receiver Tavon Austin who had the honour of the first touchdown at Twickenham while Giants’ Landon Collins scored his first career touchdown here in London after a remarkable 44-yard pick-six.

“I caught the ball and when I looked up I saw a lot of blue and saw my guys on the left so I headed for them,” Collins said. “The last time I scored a touchdown was in College so it feels fantastic to get my first one today. I’ll never forget it.”

But in the fourth quarter, the Giants started finding their rhythm. Collins’ turnover and Beckham’s 22-yard pick-up incrementally increased the volume from the stands with Rashad Jenning’s touchdown triggering high-fives aplenty. It felt like the moment the sport truly arrived at Twickenham.

“There was a lot of energy out there,” Giants head coach Ben McAdoo said after the game. “The field was great but the energy from the stands really helped us.”

Now comes the question over what happens next in this corner of London. Roger Goodell, NFL commissioner, said during the fourth quarter on the BBC he expects “to see more games here” and, while continuing to learn from series on series, was pleasantly “shocked” by just how many families had come along. It’s what he sees as a continuing development of a “position of strength” in this part of the world.

For Twickenham this was a brave new world but it looked to be a comfortable, reciprocal marriage. Like Goodell said organisers will learn from this but they have a wonderful platform to build on. Expect to see it bigger and better next year.

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