CHICAGO – The last time New Zealand’s defending Rugby World Cup champion All Blacks team played in the U.S., the game was a record-setting sellout.
It also was a blowout, as the storied All Blacks routed the USA Eagles national squad 74-6 before 61,500 people — the largest crowd to ever see a rugby match on American soil — in Chicago’s Soldier Field in November 2014.
When the All Blacks return to the lakefront stadium on Nov. 5, USA Rugby and event organizers predict similar numbers at the gate — and that the score will be closer. This time, the New Zealanders will meet the defending European Six Nations champion Irish national team.
The game will be the centerpiece of a “Rugby Weekend” intended to promote the sport in the U.S. A match between the USA Eagles and New Zealand’s Maori All-Blacks will take place on Nov. 4 at Toyota Park in suburban Bridgeview, Illinois.
According to USA Rugby CEO Nigel Melville, the All Blacks-Ireland match came together for two main reasons.
First, many of the USA Eagles players will still be under contract with European teams and unavailable for the Nov. 5 game.
Also, the Irish figure to be a stronger opponent, which will help showcase rugby at an elite level to American fans USA Rugby believes are hungry to learn more.
“It will spike interest in the game, which is good,” Melville said. “People want to see rugby. The more rugby, the better rugby they see, the more they get inspired by it.”
Even if Ireland is struggling in the current Six Nations tournament, its national team figures give the All Blacks a gritty challenge.
And the Irish will be motivated, too. They haven’t beaten the All Blacks in 28 previous tries.
“For us Irish, unfortunately we don’t have the best record against the All Blacks,” Ireland’s Tommy Bowe said. “We’ve never beat them, but we’ve been very, very close on plenty of occasions.
“We have massive support here in Chicago and in America. It could be a chance for us to finally get over that hurdle and potentially beat the All Blacks.”
The All Blacks are looking forward to their return to Chicago, said New Zealand’s Ryan Crotty, who played in the 2014 match.
“It was special the whole week,” Crotty said. “The game itself was absolutely unreal. The memory, I’ll never forget, was feeling regal.”
Both men’s and women’s U.S. teams will participate in the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro as rugby returns to the Games for the first time since 1924.
The U.S. took the gold medal 92 years ago in Paris in a three-team tournament that included France and Romania.
“We’re the reigning Olympic champions from 1924,” Melville quipped. “We have a proud legacy to defend.”