Sunday, November 2, 2014

The All Blacks Invade the USA ... Sort Of. What Does the Soldier Field Game Mean for the Future of Rugby in America?

Some thoughts on the "historic" rugby match in Chicago.

The lopsided score is not unusual for rugby matches in which one side is outmatched. Unlike American football, in which it's considered unsportsmanlike to run up the score on an opponent, in rugby it's considered disrespectful to ease up on an opponent, even if you're already up by 50 points. No harm, no foul on that front.

Yet when you're the superior team and you don't put in your best players, that in itself seems disrespectful to me. And that's what New Zealand did. I understand that they didn't want to injure their star players in a game that was meaningless to them, but when you have 60,000 fans looking on and expecting to see the best players in the world, putting in your reserves takes more than a bit of excitement out of the match. Maybe they thought a lot of the American fans would be none the wiser. Maybe they were right. But the fact is that of the 15 men who started for the All Blacks in Chicago, there was really only one marquee name among them -- Sonny Bill Williams, who showed exactly why he's as well known as he is, scoring two tries (that's the rugby equivalent of a touchdown) early on in the match. And this was his first game back with the team in two years.

Richie McCaw and Dan Carter. Heart and soul of the All Blacks.
One MIA in Chicago, the other relegated to backup duty.
But most everyone else, with only a few exceptions, was a second- or third-stringer -- the guys who usually substitute for the All Blacks' star players late in a match. Richie McCaw, All Blacks captain and arguably the best rugby player on the planet, didn't even dress for the game. Star fly-half Dan Carter was a reserve and didn't join the action until the second half was well under way. (I will cut him some slack, though, as he was coming off an injury.)

The fact that Team USA didn't get to face the All Blacks' biggest stars is a particular sticking point. The match was billed as "historic" on the premise that the Eagles would be facing the cream of the rugby world. In the weeks leading up to the game, when people on message boards and elsewhere would ask whether Team USA would be going up against New Zealand's starters and not the scrubs, the answer was always "yes." That was an enormous part of the excitement building up to this match, as the big names in international rugby tend to rest their starters against lower-tier competition like the Eagles. Fans were flying in from as far away as Manitoba expecting to see McCaw and Company get down to business. McCaw did nothing to dispel those notions, making himself very visible around Chicago in the week leading up to the game -- he even got to shoot some pucks in a Blackhawks jersey during intermission of one of their games.

This is the only playing time Cap'n McCaw saw in Chicago.
And then, two days before the match, New Zealand unveils a starting lineup featuring its least experienced team in five years, with McCaw's name nowhere in sight. By that point, Soldier Field had already sold out and the match had secured coverage on national TV. If it had been made clear ahead of time just whom the Eagles would be playing against, there's no way Soldier Field would have sold out, and there's no way the game would have been nationally televised. It was a classic bait and switch.

To that end, it's notable that the Chicago game's primary sponsor, AIG, is also the All Blacks' front-of-jersey sponsor. Something tells me that AIG knew all along that the team it sponsors was not going to field its top-flight players, yet AIG aggressively marketed the game as if they would. 

No one doubts current USA captain Todd Clever's
heart and grit, but the Eagles simply don't
stack up against the world's best.
Anyway, if one of the goals of this match was to grow interest in rugby in the United States, this was really not the way to go about it. On one hand, you have the USA Eagles, a blip on the world rugby radar. And they went up not against the best players in the world, as was advertised, but rather against the best players' backups. And the Eagles still lost the match 74-6.

Think about that for a moment. If you had an upstart American football team, and you went up against a touring group of NFL all-stars, which would be the more humiliating outcome: getting demolished by Peyton Manning or Tom Brady, the best in the game, or getting demolished by, say, Jay Cutler? At least if you lose to Manning or Brady, you can hold your head high and say you truly put forth your best effort while falling to the best in the business. But if Jay Cutler hands you your head on a platter, how is that supposed to make you feel?

Deceptive marketing and all else aside, rugby can succeed in the United States. If soccer can catch on here, as it has with the MLS -- I know the Sounders are a huge draw here in Seattle -- then so can the oval-ball game that evolved from it. And frankly, the time is ripe for an appealing full-contact sport that could attract American football fans, given the scrutiny that the gridiron game has come under recently for its spate of player concussions and disabilities. Rugby is no less entertaining than American ball, but rugby players' injuries tend to consist of cuts and bruises rather than broken bones, blown-out ligaments, and career-ending shots to the head, even though rugby players wear far less protective gear than their American counterparts do.

The Seahawks, taking the head out of the game.
That's because rugby players learn how to wrap a player up and take him safely to the ground during a tackle -- a technique that Pete Carroll has been teaching his Seahawks players, much to his credit. If you're a rugby player, you can't launch your body into an opponent like a missile and pound him into the turf the way you do in the American game. In rugby, dangerous play like that can get you kicked out of the game, or even suspended. The American game could learn something from that approach. There's a difference between aggressive play and reckless play. The American game has taken the latter approach, perhaps to its own detriment.

A much better way to showcase how exciting rugby can be when both teams are evenly matched would be to follow the NFL's approach when it takes the gridiron game overseas. When the NFL plays its annual games in London, they don't assemble a bunch of second-tier players to take on a hopelessly outmatched English gridiron team. They send over two of their teams, with their regular rosters, and let them play a game that counts in the standings, showing the crowd exactly how top-tier American football looks.

Gareth Edwards, playing for the Barbarians in a 1973 match against
the All Blacks. In this match, Edwards scored what many rugby fans
consider the greatest try of all time. Matches of this caliber
are what will grow the game of rugby in new markets.
There are numerous opportunities to do the same thing with rugby. Europe has three top-tier leagues for club-based rugby union, and the Southern Hemisphere (specifically Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa) has another. Any of those leagues could put on a regular-season match here in the USA. There are also three big annual tournaments -- one club-based in Europe, and two based on matching up national all-star teams like the All Blacks. Again, bringing a match Stateside would really give spectators a taste of truly competitive rugby played at the highest level.

There's actually been talk that Super Rugby, the Southern Hemisphere's club-based league, is eyeing expansion into Argentina, Japan, and the United States. That would be a huge step forward in rugby's quest to gain a foothold here. If it happens, expect a team based on the West Coast whose roster is mostly filled with foreign players, much like the NHL has as many Europeans playing on its teams as it does Canadians and Americans. Some of those second-tier players the Eagles went up against in Chicago could end up on a San Diego-based Super Rugby team.

That may not set well with American sports fans who prefer their talent to be home-grown. But right now, we don't have the interest, and therefore the financial resources, to allow our players to go professional. While some of our Eagles players have been able to scratch out a living playing professionally overseas, many of our best players are still amateurs -- guys who hold down day jobs and follow rugby as their largely unpaid passion. In contrast, rugby is so huge in places like New Zealand that their players can make a living, and a fairly handsome one at that, just from playing the game. So the deck is stacked against us. And that's why even New Zealand's backups were able to manhandle the Americans' starters by 68 points in Chicago.

The Webb Ellis Cup, awarded to the
winner of the Rugby World Cup.
So far, only four nations have hoisted
it in victory.
There's also a sharp divide worldwide between rugby's elite and everyone else. Even though rugby union is played in more than 100 countries on six continents, only a small handful of those countries are competitive at the highest level. Consider that ever since the Rugby World Cup began in 1987, only four nations have won -- New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, and England. Those are the elites of the rugby world. The second tier after that would arguably be France, Ireland, and Argentina. Then maybe Italy, Scotland, and Wales. After that is a sharp drop-off. Canada, Fiji, and Samoa make some noise every once in a while, perhaps beating an opponent they're not expected to, but literally everyone else is an also-ran. Rugby is not soccer. It lives in soccer's shadow on the international stage and does not enjoy the international parity that soccer does. That could work against rugby's efforts to widen its appeal in untapped markets.

And it could be even doubly hard here in the United States. Americans are a provincial lot. If we didn't create it, we often want nothing to do with it. American football, when you get down to it, is just a modified version of rugby -- but, by golly, it's our modification. We invented it. It's the uniquely American spin on an internationally established sport. Can American football's great-granddaddy take hold in an environment like that? We even tend to overlook ice hockey, save in a few northern U.S. cities, and hockey has been a North American stronghold for well over a century. Yet many people see it as Canada's game, not our game, and that's probably a big part of why it lingers in fourth place among the "Big Four" sports on the continent.

A rugby sevens mini-scrum.
A fast-paced seven-man version of rugby will become part of the Summer Olympics in 2016, and it's possible that its inclusion will raise rugby's profile in places where it's currently not popular. But it's important to note that rugby sevens is significantly different from the standard 15-man game. Some have also argued that Americans might actually take better to rugby league than to rugby union. There are two main varieties of rugby played on the world stage, and while union is the far more popular game worldwide, league consists of rules and gameplay that would probably be more familiar to fans of American football, including the rough equivalent of a set of downs for each team. But would that be enough? Americans might find it redundant, even more so than they might perceive the union game to be. In other words, rugby could ultimately be seen as just an unnecessary variant of gridiron football, which is probably the same reason most Americans have no interest in cricket. Why bother with cricket when you already have baseball?

On the other hand, there's the MLS, with at least some pockets of enthusiastic support around the country. So it's not as if sports that weren't invented in America have zero chance of penetrating the U.S. market. It's just always going to be a challenge.

And pitting your hopelessly outgunned amateur national team against a group of second-string professionals from the world's premier rugby powerhouse probably is not the best way to go about surmounting that challenge.

The Americans were doomed from the moment the All Blacks performed the pre-game haka.
USA-New Zealand was an enjoyable match, but it's not going to prove to be a "historic" match that ignites Americans' interest in rugby union. Good idea, wrong approach.

No comments:

Post a Comment