CHICAGO — In 2014 Soldier Field hosted the U.S. Eagles’ match against the All Blacks. It was billed as the moment that signalled the arrival of rugby stateside. The giant was said to have been awoken.
Yet two years on, looking back at 2014, the Eagles playing at the home of the Bears seemed to stir the sport rather than spring it into life. On Saturday, 62,300 folk packed into Chicago’s fantastic stadium to witness one of the finest rugby matches this decade; the sport seemed to take another step forward in this part of the world as Ireland ended their 111-year drought to beat New Zealand.
On Wednesday night, Chicago was rocking to the hundreds of thousands of car horns exploding with joy at the Cubs’ World Series win. Suddenly 108 years of waiting had been worth it. By Saturday evening, the sound of Irish ballads floated on the calm Chicago air.
Irish pubs on North Wells St. were eight-deep at the entrance, the well-known brand of stout was flowing as freely as the river which had been dyed blue on Friday for the Cubs victory parade. Those in green sang, hugged; those wearing the silver fern of New Zealand joined in, congratulating, enjoying, forging friendships and creating memories.
The Rock Bottom Brewery on West Grand Avenue was rammed. Some bars on Michigan Avenue had run out of beer so rugby folk moved north of the river searching for more liquid refreshment.
A man standing at the bar, wearing a Bulls jersey, was asking celebrating Ireland fans if they were something to do with the All Blacks who were in town. Curiosity had got the better of him so he looked into just who these black-shirt adorned people were and found something had happened with Ireland ending a 111-year wait.
All Black Israel Dagg takes a selfie for a fan after the U.S. face New Zealand in 2014. Phil Walter/Getty Images
In a place where sporting droughts had been put to bed, interest was peaking. As those wearing green crossed the road, waving flags at the waiting cars the carnival atmosphere of Wednesday night had returned, albeit on a considerably smaller scale.
But there was intrigue among the locals. People started talking about rugby, imparting their own experiences, encouraging others to look into it. This word-of-mouth spreading of the rugby gospel is one of the most powerful tools to develop the sport stateside.
A Chicago local from Irish ancestry called John was standing in the Brewery, talking about how much he had enjoyed the match. He tells his three-year old that rugby, in his view, gives you a better long-term outlook both in health and enjoyment than American football.
He was joined by Rick, a flanker of 23-years from St. Louis. Both spoke of how much they had enjoyed the match, fielded questions from curious locals. But they aren’t new rugby converts; they’re already dyed-in-the-wool fans of the sport.
Their view was that to really grow the game here, considerable investment has to be made in youth rugby — a view shared by USA Rugby’s impressive new CEO Dan Payne. Their views on rugby’s review process were also worth noting.
They felt the primary way rugby can grow in this part of the world is to offer a point of difference to NFL. Ditch the review system was their recommendation — if people want a stop-and-start game then they’ll stick to NFL.
They feel rugby needs to have relentless, free-flowing, eye-catching action without the pauses for the Television Match Official. It’s an intriguing proposition and one World Rugby should note. It’s something Sevens usually offers, yet in a place which finds the attritional nature of NFL so appealing, rugby’s welcoming arm for shapes of all sizes slots in as the nice alternative.
Ireland fans celebrate the 40-29 win over New Zealand at Soldier Field, Chicago. Phil Walter/Getty Images
It is something which Rugby Illinois are advocating — they encourage their youths to play for enjoyment, rather than winning. Everyone gets a game with an approach countering the competitive nature of prospective, young American football players.
Having sevens in the Olympics will continue to have a positive knock-on effect for the sport here but the Eagles need to develop into a side capable of knocking over tier one sides on an annual basis to really explode into the public consciousness.
And then there’s the stardust of having the All Blacks and Ireland on your home patch. The U.S. Eagles’ match with the Maori All Blacks was a good occasion on Friday night but you doubt there’ll be any long-lasting impact from that game other than essential experience for the U.S. side who are going through a cultural sea change under John Mitchell.
The 18,000 fans would’ve enjoyed it but seeing your Eagles team getting hammered does little to grow their fan base. It is rugby’s superstars that carry the biggest weight here. The players from the All Blacks and Ireland bought into the whole Chicago experience.
It’s hard not to when you have five million Cubs fans flocking to the streets for Friday’s victory parade.
“Both times I’ve come here it’s been a great occasion,” All Blacks captain Kieran Read said. “The stadium is world-class. We love to come here and hearing the crowd and how passionate they are about rugby is great. We don’t want to lose, obviously, but you have to give credit to the Irish. Chicago’s been great, we’ve really enjoyed it.”
Five All Blacks were on Adidas duty before the parade; they signed balls, posed for photos and took in an impromptu game of baseball on the closed off streets. A chap called Trey was there to see his heroes whom he learned about juts two years previous.
“Man, that haka, the All Blacks – I cried like a baby the first time I saw the haka on Soldier Field in 2014”.
He looked on in awe as Julian Savea and Aaron Smith stood within touching distance. The growth of rugby in the U.S. will be a gradual process. It needs a culmination of eureka moments with the continued growth of the grassroots game. Ireland’s historic win in Chicago offers the game a chance to take another step forward.
Source Article from http://www.espn.co.uk/rugby/story/_/id/17982796/us-eagles-need-improve-continue-growth-all-blacks-effect
U.S. rugby need to drive on from the All Blacks effect
www.espn.co.uk – RUGBY