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Organizers confident in appeal of USA-Australia rugby match

When the USA Eagles faced the New Zealand All Blacks last November at Soldier Field it was a first-of-its-kind sporting event. There never had been any rugby match with that much exposure in the United States, and the game did as well as anybody could have expected considering the niche sport’s profile.

On Saturday, Sept. 5 at Soldier Field, the Eagles are returning to Chicago to face Australia’s Wallabies. Like their New Zealand rivals, the Wallabies are a major brand that should bring fans from all over world to the lakefront. They’re the sixth-ranked team in the world and have won two World Cups, building a strong and passionate international following.

But their appearance won’t be part of a first-time event, perhaps bringing a danger the match could be viewed as nothing more than a sequel. Though if anybody at Tuesday’s announcement was worried this year’s game will be seen that way, they weren’t saying.

“I’m not concerned about it being a novelty and interest not being maintained,” said Kara Bachman, the executive director of the Chicago Sports Commission. “I think (last year’s game) sparked interest and I think it will continue to climb.”

USA Rugby is confident that will happen.

Nigel Melville, USA Rugby’s CEO, said the goal is to sell out Soldier Field like last fall. He stressed that by saying “we’re not going to shy away from that one” and said repeatedly it will be a “great” event.

“You talk to anybody around the world who saw the game (last year) and they were like ‘Wow, that was cool. Really enjoyed it.’ Because it was different. It wasn’t like European rugby, it wasn’t like southern hemisphere rugby. It was like American rugby,” Melville said. “Which we want to build on.”

For Australia, it’s a chance to match its rival.

The Wallabies will be based in Chicago for two weeks and play the USA in both teams’ final game before the World Cup. There will be activations and events to promote their stay, and they want to create a presence similar to what the All Blacks did last fall.

“That’s our opportunity, is to actually try and bring the same sort of fervor and excitement as the All Blacks did, and the World Cup to play for at the end of it,” said Rob Clarke, the head of business development for Australian rugby. “There’s a lot going for it.”

It should also have a more competitive Eagles team, which will have a whole summer together to train instead of a week like they had before New Zealand. Since it’s right before the World Cup, the match figures to be intense as the teams prepare for the major tournament.

One thing it won’t have is the first-time charm like last November.

“Do you match it, do you compare it like for like?” Melville said. “People will, but at the end of the day it’s a great stadium and people should come see it because it will be a great event.”