Scotty Stevenson: Rugby could storm the Windy City

If World Cup success can generate US football frenzy, the Chicago match should raise the oval ball’s profile

Record numbers of Americans are following the team's fortunes at the football World Cup. Photo / AP
Record numbers of Americans are following the team's fortunes at the football World Cup. Photo / AP

They call it the "June gloom" - the early summer haze that clogs the LA air and makes you feel like you're living in a world that has been crop-dusted. The skies clear - well, by LA standards - for a time around midday, but soon enough the haze returns and you're back to seeing life through the atmospheric equivalent of a lace curtain.

I have tried to explain to my American friends that New Zealand's "June gloom" is a damn sight wetter and colder. They should count themselves lucky; if this is gloom, then I'm all for it. I have tried also to explain to them the concept of netball, but that's another story. Suffice to say nobody here gets it.

What they do get right now is football, or at least the World Cup. As you read this, millions of Americans will be either celebrating their national side's advancement at the Brazilian tournament, or commiserating the end of the road. There is confidence in the land of the free as I write.

The Yanks have a good history against Germany. Last time I looked they were 2 and 0, leaving it late both times.

The US of A has gone crazy for the round ball. The World Cup has almost knocked LeBron James' "Decision 2.0" from the top of the headlines. Almost. When you consider football barely rates a mention here at the best of times, the sport would not be complaining about being in the same bulletin as LeBron, let alone competing on air time, so to speak.

To put things in perspective, consider this: A record 18 million Americans tuned in for the game against Portugal, and that number will likely be surpassed this morning. If MLS clubs can find a way to parlay this newfound appreciation for the game into interest in the local league, the potential upside is extraordinary.

It is an unlikely experience to walk into an LA pub to find that the heretofore all-important chatter about LeBron's legacy and Donald Sterling's questionable mental state has been eschewed for casual psychiatric diagnoses on the far more questionable mental state of Luis Suarez, and Jurgen Klinsmann's duty to lead his adopted country to victory over the nation of his birth. Unlikely or not, this is happening.

And that brings me to the point. Whatever you believe about where the All Blacks should play rugby, regardless of what side of the current debate around the perceived obligation to the Pacific Islands you find yourself on, the decision made to take a game to Soldier Field in Chicago this year should be commended. Rarely does this country get nationalistic over sport - in the land of the franchise it never has to. But what the Olympics and this World Cup prove is this: when called to pledge your allegiance, no nation does it like USA! USA!

That's what a test match against the All Blacks can do for the sport of rugby here. Just as football has been free-kicked into the national consciousness, rugby can have a chance to prise open the door to the bar-room of the American sports fan too. No one is suggesting that 18 million Americans will suddenly become rugby fans, but if just a fraction of that number experience the game, rugby has a chance to briefly shine in a nation which boasts the brightest sports stars of all.

So many Kiwi fans seem sceptical about this match-up, but there is genuine excitement here. I know of fans already planning their trip - from here in LA, Minneapolis, Houston - and these aren't expat New Zealanders, they are full blooded 'mericans. The All Blacks and the game want to grow, and football's success is proving right now that there's plenty of room right here.

Besides, it was the All Blacks who arguably stymied the growth of the game here in the first place, back in 1906, when the Originals embarrassed their opponents in California before heading back to New Zealand. It's no surprise the locals invented their own code after that. This game's the least New Zealand rugby could do.

The upshot is, this game is nothing to be gloomy about, in June or any other month. And anyway, we have far more pressing concerns: Richie McCaw's out again, and LeBron won't tell us where he's going.

- NZ Herald

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