Ryan Crotty and his New Zealand All-Black teammates acknowledge they have felt a palpable buzz as the two-time defending World Cup rugby champions have spent this week preparing for Saturday’s match against Ireland at Soldier Field.
But for once, what is perhaps the world’s most popular rugby club has found itself sharing top billing with other sporting interests.
Two years ago, the All-Blacks drew a record crowd of 61,500 when they routed the USA Eagles, 74-6. But as the All-Blacks kick off an international tour that will take them from Chicago to Rome, Dublin and finally to Paris, they can’t help but feed off of the energy that has been created here by the Cubs’ World Series berth and the start of the NBA and NHL seasons.
Now, they’re hoping they can continue to ride that wave of momentum against the Irish, the defending Six Nations Cup champions.
But as far as excitement for their own sport goes, the All-Blacks have noticed a marked difference from their last visit.
“There’s a little bit more knowledge about what rugby is and who the All-Blacks are,” said Crotty, a midfielder who was part of the 2014 club. “Hopefully that buzz (around the city) continues and sticks around until Saturday afternoon.”
The All-Blacks enter Saturday’s match with 18 straight test wins, which allows them to carry a wealth confidence into their upcoming international schedule. But as the world’s top rugby club, All-Blacks assistant coach Ian Foster knows that opposing clubs, starting with Ireland, will be bent on taking the All-Blacks down a peg or two.
“This week is about performing at a top level,” Foster said Tuesday. “By doing that and having that as our focus, that’s how we think we grow.”
The All-Blacks understand that the city’s sporting loyalties have been devoted almost entirely to the Cubs. But come Saturday, they hope the club’s popularity and style of play will shine through like it did in 2014 when All-Blacks played in front of a diversified sold-out audience.
“It felt like there were 20,000 Kiwis, 20,000 U.S. rugby fans and probably 20,000 people who wondered what the heck the sport was that was selling out Soldier Field,” Foster said. “Hopefully, that ratio has changed a little bit.”
Crotty, for one, believes that the American fan base has a greater understanding of rugby and can appreciate the sport when it is played as a high level. But he also knows that as popular as the All-Blacks and the Irish Rugby Football Union are in their own right, some fans will attend Saturday’s match uncertain of what to expect.
Crotty hopes one match is all it takes to turn that thinking around.
“It’s obviously a game that New Zealanders are passionate and proud of,” he said.
But as they prepare to compete in front of another large crowd on Saturday, the All-Blacks admit to having found themselves enamored by Chicago’s sporting interests, taking in both Blackhawks and Bears games while they’ve been here.
“It’s been cool,” All-Blacks forward Sam Cane said. “The guys have all been to American sport and most of the guys know what’s going on with the baseball and the football and things like that. It’s been pretty good fun so far.”
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