The result of the high-profile clash between New Zealand and the USA was predictably one-sided – a 12-try 74-6 victory for the All Blacks. But this game was never about the scoreline.
The most important numbers were the 61,500 fans that flocked to the iconic Soldier Field and what is hoped are millions who tuned into the game on NBC in a rare terrestrial outing for what is a minority sport in the USA.
Add to that list the reported millions of dollars that lured the All Blacks to the States and laid the foundation for what is hoped will be a springboard to even better things for the American rugby and the sport in general.
The game was never billed as a chance for the Eagles to write sporting history and beat the All Blacks – but as an opportunity to witness the world’s best in action.
To their credit, the All Blacks did not disappoint with a dazzling advert for the game that simply blew the Eagles away in the Windy City.
But they were not the only ones to put on a show.
This sports-mad city on the shores of Lake Michigan may not have been awash with promotion for the game but a sell-out crowd at an NFL stadium – a record attendance for a rugby match in the United States – played their part in a memorable occasion.
As you might expect from such a sporting fixture in the States, the hosts did not hold back with the fanfare and fireworks ahead of kick off while the vocal talents of Jim Cornelison, the regular national anthem singer with the Chicago Blackhawks ice hockey franchise, helped to whip the home fans into a frenzy.
If only the Eagles’ resistance had lasted as long as some of his notes.
There was respect and awe at the sight of the haka but ‘USA, USA, USA’ chants were soon doused by the opening try from New Zealand’s Nathan Harris with just three minutes on the clock.
What followed was a brutal lesson for the Eagles, battered into submission and then torn to shreds time and time again by an All Blacks side able to cut you to shreds if your defence leaves the smallest of gaps but on this occasion gifted swathes of the field by their hosts.
What the many new fans present and at home will make of the annihilation of the hosts remains to be seen. Getting out-played, out-thought and out-classed is not the ideal way to ensure the Eagles are embraced by the wider sporting public.
But the sport itself could well be the trump card in that battle and having been exposed it is hoped that these casual fans will seek out a further fix at their local club or via their computer or TV remote.
All Blacks head coach Steve Hansen sees reason for hope despite having seen his side run the Eagles ragged from first whistle to last.
Asked by a young fan post-game whether this fixture would be a turning point for the game in the States, Hansen said that he thought the presence of his fresh-faced inquisitor signified that day had clearly already turned the corner.
The game may have momentum to take the fight to the NFL, MLS, MLB and NHL and secure new players, supporters and volunteers but competing with the world’s best remains a distant goal. On this point, Hansen has another theory. He believes that the USA may have to wait a generation before they can enter such games with victory a realistic goal of winning.
Only when the record numbers of boys and girls currently playing the game have graduated through the junior ranks to the senior teams of tomorrow will they be able to compete. According to Hansen, that lifelong exposure to the game and the technical aspects is what is required to complement the undoubted physical attributes of today’s leading players and create world-class rugby talent.
Eagles coach Mike Tolkin is hopeful he will not have to wait decades to see the USA challenge the likes of the All Blacks, encouraged by ability of his professional players – including captain Todd Clever who is based in Japan and familiar Premiership faces such as Northampton’s Samu Manoa and Saracens’ Chris Wyles – to go toe-to-toe with New Zealand.
Tolkin, who was limited to just a handful of training sessions to prepare for the biggest game in the USA Rugby’s history due to his far-flung squad, believes a completely professional set-up is the key to competing with the best. But the club game in the United States will not be able to make such a leap from its current amateur status without significant investment.
The undoubted success of this event will ensure it is repeated in the near future with South Africa understood to be keen to tap into the US market, but the scoreline will become increasingly important.
Did you watch the game at Soldier Field or on TV? Do you think in years to come we will see USA Eagles competing with top teams like the All Blacks and Springboks?