Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Eagles hope AB visit takes off

Rugby in the US is growing at all levels, from college to five-year-olds. Photo / AP
Rugby in the US is growing at all levels, from college to five-year-olds. Photo / AP

The All Blacks test in Chicago this year is going to sell out. For a full week leading into this historic test, the United States rugby fraternity will hold centre stage just as they have always wanted.

The nation's imagination will be there to be captured: a test against the All Blacks at the iconic Soldier Field, televised live on a mainstream network will provide the single greatest opportunity for the sport to win a nationwide audience, new players, sponsors and coaches.

For 80 minutes on November 1, Soldier Field will have the attention of the US sporting public.

And then what?

The All Blacks will hop on a plane to London the next morning and the US, doing its best not to sound a little needy and desperate, will have to ask where exactly this relationship is heading.

Will Chicago be a one-off, or the beginning of something meaningful and regular? Answering that question might be a little challenging for the All Blacks.

There are specific, time sensitive factors behind their decision to play in the US on their way to Europe for tests against England, Scotland and Wales.

The coaching team have a genuine desire to simulate to some extent a psuedo-World Cup scenario of playing a Tier Two nation - which is what they will do in their final pool encounter next year - and then three hard tests back-to-back - to replicate the knockout rounds.

There is also a commercial imperative to their US venture. Main sponsor AIG have not dictated the All Blacks play in the US, but by doing so, the New Zealand Rugby Union will have a stronger hand when it comes to negotiate an extension of the insurer's existing agreement that will expire in 2017.

When those boxes are ticked, what will bring the All Blacks back to the US? The way the Americans are viewing it, they will need to be able to offer the All Blacks either genuine competition or significant financial returns and preferably both.

When the All Blacks played England in 2012 outside the November window, they were paid $4.5 million and were definitely challenged on the field, as it remains the only game they have lost under Steve Hansen.

By comparison, the All Blacks will pocket $1 million from the Chicago test and the prospect of genuine competition may seem a forlorn hope by the time the two teams trudge off Soldier Field. The US Eagles, brave and committed as they are, remain an underwhelming presence.

The gap could be 50 points. It might be more and that will give the impression the Eagles are decades away from challenging.

Possibly not, though. US Rugby has been smart and patient in the past 10 years - playing the long game by building from the bottom up.

Rookie Rugby - a carbon copy of New Zealand's Rippa Rugby - has been massively successful in driving up participation rates and there are now 150,000 registered five-year-olds playing.

Rugby is no longer a counterculture sport - an alternative for failed or aspiring American football players.

Now, there is a generation of players brought up on rugby and exclusively dedicated to it. The foundation for success has been laid, which is why both former US Rugby chairman Kevin Roberts and his successor, Bob Latham, predict with a degree of confidence that America could be a viable Tier One nation within 10 years.

That forecast is supported by their expectation that it won't be overly long before the US has its own sustainable professional competition. There is, then, a good chance the All Blacks will be back in the not too distant future. Perhaps November 2018-on a similar World Cup preparation rationale - looms as the most likely return date and who knows after that?

By 2020, the Eagles could at least be offering significant commercial returns. Eight years ago, total revenue for US Rugby was about $5 million, now it is closer to $15 million and no one can see any reason why that growth can't continue or even accelerate.

The sport is largely untouched in terms of broadcast deals and there is the Olympic factor to consider: if the respective men's and women's sevens teams deliver at Rio in 2016, rugby could engage a whole raft of new sponsors and potential investors.

- Herald on Sunday

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