The November tests have certainly held their share of upsets, surprises and instant classics. Perhaps none more impressive and beneficial to the rugby world than the incredible victory of the Irish over the All Blacks in Chicago. The rugby world was turned on its head, but what was even more telling was the response to the match in the United States.
The fan base for rugby in the States pales in comparison to the more mainstream sports, falling behind giants like American football, baseball, basketball and even hockey. However the fan base, although small, is proving to be mighty.
At The Rugby Weekend in Chicago November 4 and 5, US fans sold-out the Eagles and Maori All Blacks matchup, notching nearly 20,000 in a relatively small stadium by American sports standards. The home of the MLS’ Chicago Fire was full of energy for the entire match, despite the drubbing the Eagles took. A local CARFU (Chicago Area Rugby Football Union) club match played just before the main event, on a small pitch located between two of the stadium’s parking lots, drew hundreds of tailgaters to the action.
Then, inside the stadium, from the opening kickoff to the final whistle, fans rallied for their team, many for the Eagles and many for the Maori. The true fans in the stands understood a Maori team stacked with Super Rugby and soon-to-be-All Blacks (including one certain Ioane brother just a week later), were heavy favorites, but the excitement of the weekend was enough to keep them in their seats, with the assistance of a few choice beverages.
Based on the crowd that witnessed the Maori victory, it would not be an undue assumption that the majority of Soldier Field on Saturday afternoon would be supporters of the All Blacks. As was the case the last time New Zealand visited the US, the All Blacks were a massive crowd draw.
However, one factor that many may not have counted on was the large Irish population in Chicago and the surrounding area. In fact, at first kickoff, a large portion of the seats were filled with green. Fans came from all over the States to witness the match, including a group from the San Diego Old Aztecs rugby club, who needed three full charter buses to shuttle them to the stadium and tailgate.
In a city which had just witnessed one of its storied MLB franchises win the World Series for the first time in more than a century, maybe it was fitting that Ireland would get their first ever victory over New Zealand on American soil. As the final whistle sounded, green Vodafone flags waved in all corners of Soldier Field.
The after effects of such a match will be felt in the United States for a long time. Rugby popularity in the country gained a large boost from the Olympics and The Rugby Weekend will only further the sport in the US. Shortly after the matches in Chicago, new USA Rugby CEO Dan Payne posted on social media of an interaction on his flight home, noting that the man next to him had turned on rugby on his seat-back screen and was genuinely interested in learning more about the game.
This type of exposure, of high-level teams, combined with the hopeful growth and maturation of PRO Rugby, and the continued explosion of NSCRO and collegiate rugby across the United States will lead to greater visibility and an even bigger following. Some professional sports teams ‘travel’ particularly well to away games, with thousands of fans following them across the country. Rugby has the potential to be the ultimate “travel” sport.
Las Vegas draws upwards of 60,000 fans over the three-day tournament and The Rugby Weekend drew more than 80,000 in just two matches. Rugby is on the rise and will continue to benefit from the most zealous fans the world has to offer, and soon enough in the United States, the masses will follow.