Soldier Field, home of the NFL’s Chicago Bears, is sold-out for the one-off Test on Saturday, promising an historic crowd of 61,000-plus that will more than treble the previous record rugby crowd of 20,181 for a United States match against Ireland in Houston in 2013.
Regardless of the outcome, it’s a milestone moment for a USA Rugby federation keen to raise the profile of the game in the crowded US sports landscape.
“This is a fantastic opportunity for us to showcase the global game of rugby to American sports fans,” said USA Rugby Chief Executive Officer Nigel Melville, a former England captain.
The inclusion of rugby sevens in the 2016 Rio Olympic program has boosted interest in the game in America.
With potential Olympic medals at stake funding has flowed into the sport, and that opportunity is also an attention grabber for talented athletes who might otherwise direct their efforts to the gridiron or basketball court.
Olympic broadcaster NBC will carry live coverage of a match Melville has called the “biggest game in US rugby history.”
The world champion All Blacks named a makeshift matchday squad that includes 12 changes to the 15 who started against Australia a fortnight ago.
Only fullback Israel Dagg, winger Cory Jane and stand-in captain Kieran Read survive in a team consisting largely of fringe players and reserves.
Star fly-half Dan Carter and code-hopping star Sonny Bill Williams were recalled, but captain Richie McCaw dropped for what will be the first match in a tour that will also include Tests against England, Wales and Scotland.
World record points-scorer Carter, who has been out with a broken leg, was named among the reserves, while Aaron Cruden gets his chance at fly-half following his exile over a drinking incident.
The build-up to the contest has seen the All Blacks largely enjoying their anonymity in Chicago.
A few forays into the city’s busy sports scene included McCaw’s promotional puck shot at a Blackhawks NHL game.
Nevertheless, New Zealand coach Steve Hansen says the Test against the 18th-ranked Eagles is more than a chance to build the All Blacks brand in America, insisting it’s a key part of preparations for next year’s World Cup in England and Wales.
“On this northern tour we want to give all players in the squad the opportunity to grow their game — and we also want to develop our game as a team — and it starts on Saturday,” Hansen said.
– World Cup boost –
The United States have also secured a 2015 World Cup berth, and Eagles coach Mike Tolkin fields a strong team, thanks in part to reaching an agreement for the release of three English Premiership stars — Eric Fry, Samu Manoa and Hayden Smith.
Todd Clever, making his 60th appearance in an Eagles shirt, will captain the side, which also includes Phil Thiel, who spent time with Smith’s Saracens earlier this year.
Edinburgh’s Brett Thompson returns to the wing as does Leicester’s Blaine Scully. Chris Wyles will earn his 45th cap at full back.
“Our selections were based more on how we wanted to play,” Tolkin said. “(The All Blacks) present a big challenge, so worrying too much about them would be counter productive.
“We had the line-up in place in our heads already and just confirmed it with training this week.”
For Tolkin, the Test is about taking another step toward establishing the United States among the game’s elite.
“I’m going to be happy if we walk off the field having left our blood and guts and given everything we have, and gotten the respect of the All Blacks and the international rugby community, as well as or fans,” Tolkin told the International Business Times.
“I think that our guys, they’re going to put their best foot forward. They’re American sportsmen and that’s what they do — they feast on that type of thing.”