The build-up to next year’s Rugby World Cup is set to intensify next month with a feast of top-class international action that will kick off with a game that, for one side, is arguably more important than any they will play in England next year.
The United States will play host to New Zealand at the iconic Soldier Field, the home of NFL side the Chicago Bears, on November 1 in a fixture that is as much a marketing exercise as it is a rugby match and one that it is hoped will propel the game in North America to unprecedented heights.
Nobody expects the Eagles, currently ranked 18th in the world, to beat the All Blacks but it is the results off the field that are of particular interest to USA Rugby chief executive Nigel Melville who is determined to leverage the increased exposure offered by the game to boost his efforts to develop the sport across the country.
“This game is very important and exciting,” said Melville, a former England captain and Wasps and Gloucester director of rugby who swapped the Aviva Premiership for USA Rugby in 2006. “It’s us putting a marker down to say that this is possible over here. If we can get the right teams to come and visit and stage great events like this then we can really move the game forward.”
Melville will have one eye on the scoreboard as the Eagles tackle New Zealand for the first time since a 46-6 defeat at the 1991 World Cup, but he is looking far beyond what he hopes will be an historic 80 minutes.
“We want to engage a broader audience for the game and move closer to the mainstream,” he said. "We also want sponsors and fans to get more involved and continue to help us to grow the game from the kids all the way up to the Eagles.
“We want to make this aspirational, we want the young kids who watch this on TV to say, ‘Wow! This is great – I want to be an Eagle!’ It’s not always had that chance before so this is a huge opportunity for us.”
Melville has already had significant success in his efforts to grow the game Stateside although a professional league remains frustratingly elusive. “We are the fastest growing team sport in America and that is a significant step for us and this is another way of showing that and what’s going on,” insisted a bullish Melville.
“We are some way off being professionals and some way off being a Tier 1 team but we are heading in the right direction and these things take time.”
USA Rugby’s efforts to grow the sport’s fan base has already won over thousands of new supporters in sports-mad Chicago where title sponsors AIG, who helped convince New Zealand to kick off their end-of-year tour in America, are a major player.
“The Chicago Bears are not playing that weekend so we went to the Bears’ fans and have sold 4-5000 tickets to their fans, many of whom have probably not seen rugby before,” said Melville.
“The Chicago Fire soccer franchise have also been involved and we also do a lot with local clubs, High Schools and government agencies. Then there is the wider rugby community and every Kiwi in the States seems to be making their way to Chicago for the weekend.”
That quest to introduce new people to the game is set to be boosted by a rare national network broadcast of the game that will beam the action into 112 million homes. “We’ve been working with NBC for a while, they are our World Cup broadcaster and were very keen to help us. We spoke to them about the game, explained that it was a huge event and they been hugely supportive.”
Key to keeping those new fans hooked will be a strong performance in Chicago – not so easy against a side that has recently retained the Rugby Championship crown and that has been beaten just twice in 37 outings since they lifted the World Cup in 2011.
The match also falls outside the international window which means many of their leading names who are based overseas like Northampton’s Samu Manoa, Saracens’ Chris Wyles and Leicester’s Blaine Scully do not have to be released for the game.
However, USA Rugby has struck a deal with Premiership Rugby that will see ‘selected players’ released by their English clubs and Melville is hopeful that Eagles head coach Mike Tolkin will have his best players available. “We are confident we will have a full strength team for the game,” he said. “We’ve been discussing with our friends at Premiership Rugby who have been very supportive and we hope that that will work out.
“All our partners have been very supportive of this event and I would class Premiership Rugby as one of our partners because we are also looking at other things that we can do with them.”
The staging of Premiership games in the United States is just one of the exciting prospects being considered by USA Rugby with a bid to host the 2018 Rugby World Cup Sevens also in the pipeline – and they have no intention in stopping there.
“When it comes to bidding for future events like Rugby World Cup Sevens or Rugby World Cups in the future or other games like this, England coming over or whatever, I think this game will show that we can host those events and that this is a new market, a new opportunity and also very exciting.”
Melville is also convinced that a larger profile for the game in the United States is also good news for the sport as a whole. “If you want to grow rugby into a truly global sport then we need to be stronger here,” he said. “America could add so much more to the game.”
How do you think USA will fare against the in-form All Blacks? Do you see the collaboration between USA Rugby, New Zealand Rugby and Premiership Rugby to ensure this game is a successful showpiece of the sport in the country as the way forward to grow rugby globally?
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