The All Blacks coach Steven Hansen, his assistant Ian Foster and team captain for the day Kieran Read addressed the local media with a great deal of candour following their 74-6 win over the USA Eagles in Chicago. 

They answered the questions asked with a relaxed tone and Hansen, in jocular fashion, questioned one journalist’s (English) accent when asking about injuries to code-hopping star and former boxer Sonny Bill Williams as well as Cory Jane.

It was a moment where many were still absorbing what they had just seen on the pitch - surreal for the American rugby fan. Two years ago, the idea of the All Blacks playing in Chicago would have been far-fetched. Just seeing the Haka at the beginning of the match made the event bucket list material.

USA Rugby stats

 

Ron Suarez is one of over 4,000 certified coaches across the US.

There have been approximately two million youngsters who have taken part in Rookie Rugby, a non-contact version of the sport.

There are around five million youth involved in rugby.

The number has almost quadrupled since 2004. 

In 2012, USA Rugby had reported over 128,000 active members.

There are also 700 adult teams as well as 900 collegiate clubs taking part in over 20 national championships held annually. 

The Las Vegas Sevens reportedly raises 17m in tourism revenue for Sin City. 

Interest divided

There was the sacking of Chicago Cubs manager Rick Renteria as well as Nik Wallenda’s high wire walk across the Chicago skyline that received more press locally. One Chicago publication referred to the All Blacks as “Australia’s legendary rugby team”.

But despite all that, the message was loud and clear. And it was quite effective. There is no denying that rugby is growing in the US.

“We have had more media at this event than ever before,” said USA Rugby President Nigel Melville.

“Obviously it is a very exciting time for the game in the US but this will only make a difference if we continue our hard work and make sure that we capitalise on the momentum we have created.”

For Melville, this was a great starting point for the next phase of growth for the sport and many see the untapped potential in this market.

The impact

Towards the end of the press conference, a reply from Hansen hit home with many in attendance.

“I think rugby has already turned the corner,” he said. “From what I’ve been told, there’s a large amount of youth players being developed and already playing rugby here in the US.”

Ron Suarez is one of over 4,000 certified coaches across the US and he wants the authorities to focus on the grass-root in order to strengthen the game’s presence in the region.

“During the last couple of years, we’ve finally dedicated time to developing the youth program and its coaches,” he said before adding that rugby did not have a clear pathway at the youth level but some inroads were being made.

There have been approximately two million youngsters who have taken part in Rookie Rugby, a non-contact version of the sport, in the last few years. The increase in programs at high-school levels as well as scholarships are establishing an important foundation for the future.

Add up those numbers and you have around five million youth involved in rugby.

The numbers might not seem huge for a nation of over 300 million but the number has almost quadrupled since 2004.

There is also the increased interest from tv where you can now see the World Cup, the Six Nations and the Aviva Premiership on cable, compared to pay-per-view or even illegal streams that rugby fans would have to find.

Growing numbers

In 2012, USA Rugby had reported over 128,000 active members. There are also 700 adult teams as well as 900 collegiate clubs taking part in over 20 national championships held annually.

The most successful of all tournaments has been the Las Vegas Sevens. The event that launched in 2004 has gone from a niche tournament to one of the most popular in the Sevens World Series, reportedly raising $17m in tourism revenue for Sin City.

A professional competition would be the next best thing for us. The gap between our Eagles and clubs is too wide

Nigel Melville, USA Rugby president

Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll decided to look at rugby in order to improve tackling techniques with professional American football players. His approach initiated talk on improving tackling, especially with the controversy about head injuries looming large from Pop Warner (youth levels) to the NFL.

On the field itself, one of the highlights was when Kieran Read came up with a behind-the-back pass to set up Julian Savea for his second try of the day. When asked about that play, Read’s answer was simple: "(The US) will probably get there, but it's tough because (rugby) is a sport you have to learn pretty early on."

Planning the future

It was part of the learning experience that the players knew they had to go through in order to help the sport grow at all levels. That is why playing a team like the All Blacks in a non-World Cup setting and in the US is a major step in sparking that growth. However, more is needed.

“A professional competition would be the next best thing for us,” said Melville.

“The gap between our Eagles and clubs is too wide. We need a professional competition for our domestic players to train in a full-time environment.”

This gap is most evident when you deal with a large base of the player pool still playing at the amateur level though now there are various Eagles that are playing professionally in Europe and Asia. The Eagles gave tremendous effort on the pitch that Saturday afternoon, especially considering they had only five training sessions prior to the match.

Despite the result, there was still a great deal of buzz over what the Eagles could offer in the future.

The sport is on the right path towards creating a tremendous rugby culture for future generations to reap the benefits and see a country like the US to the world’s best a tough fight.