Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: England clubs test All Blacks' Chicago venture

USA Rugby is struggling to get players such as Northampton's Samu Manoa released from their clubs to play the All Blacks in November. Photo / Getty Images
USA Rugby is struggling to get players such as Northampton's Samu Manoa released from their clubs to play the All Blacks in November. Photo / Getty Images

The All Blacks' proposed test in Chicago this year remains in limbo while USA Rugby fights England's professional clubs to gain access to the Eagles' best players.

Financial terms have been agreed for the test, a venue has been found (Soldier Field, home of the NFL's Chicago Bears), a date has been set (November 1) but, so far, the Eagles have not persuaded England's Premiership clubs to release American players.

The deal struck between USA Rugby and the New Zealand Rugby Union is contingent on the Eagles being competitive and, to be that, they need access to their European-based professionals.

About 10-12 of America's likely squad are contracted to English and French clubs and the Eagles need them to offer any kind of meaningful resistance to even a reduced-strength All Black side.

The likes of bruising forward Samu Manoa at Northampton and elusive fullback Blaine Scully at Leicester Tigers have made a big impression in the Premiership.

The game falls outside the official IRB window but the US, by way of compromise, have offered to return players one week early to their clubs. That means the total time the US players would be away is the same as it would have been had the All Black game fallen inside the window.

Initial conversations with a few clubs were positive but the proposal was rejected at the January Premier League board meeting. Despite the rejection, optimism remains high a solution can be found to ensure the test is played.

Common sense usually breaks out in these matters. It's unfortunate that European rugby is in a state of chaos following England and France's decision to pull out of the next Heineken Cup.

No one knows what club rugby will look like in the Celtic nations and England after June and perhaps the US proposal will be viewed more sympathetically once some clarity comes in the next few weeks.

There's not really much the NZRU can do to influence proceedings. They could make an impassioned plea on behalf of the Americans but it will be a hard sell to make England's clubs care particularly whether a test between the US and the All Blacks goes ahead in Chicago.

There is a big picture for the clubs to think about: building a bigger and engaged rugby audience in the US creates the possibility of playing there. In the last few years, there have been various proposals by English clubs - some have happened - to play league, cup and friendly games in places such as Dubai, Barcelona and Cape Town. The prospect of taking club fixtures to New York, Chicago or Washington would hold major commercial appeal and the All Black test would at least be an intriguing means of testing the waters.

While the NZRU was initially looking at trying to play a World XV as opposed to the Eagles in the US, there is little prospect of that being revived. It is anticipated that a crowd of 40,000-plus will turn up at Soldier Field if the Eagles play the All Blacks. But if the All Blacks are asked to play a World XV, the game could bomb commercially with a notoriously patriotic American public unlikely to have much interest in an exhibition game.

- Herald on Sunday

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