Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Solid reasons to play US

The New Zealand Maori played the US Eagles last year. The All Blacks look likely to follow suit this season. Photo / Getty Images
The New Zealand Maori played the US Eagles last year. The All Blacks look likely to follow suit this season. Photo / Getty Images

The All Blacks are on the verge of confirming their historic test in the United States - a venture that has credible rugby imperatives despite appearing to be driven by commercial goals.

The Eagles haven't secured agreement about the release of their European-based players but the New Zealand Rugby Union is prepared to commit to the game, relatively confident the US will have struck agreements over key players by the time the test is played on November 1.

It is a risk for the NZRU to say yes to what could be a horribly one-sided fixture - a risk that could be construed as desperation to please US-based sponsor AIG, who are thought to be committing around $10 million a year to be associated with the game here.

But the national body says the decision to play in Chicago has been reached on the basis that when combined with the European leg of the November tour, it will provide a realistic World Cup simulation.

At the last two World Cups, the final All Blacks pool game has been against a lowly ranked opponent. They have had to play a minnow, then adapt quickly to the pressure and intensity of knockout games against quality opposition.

By playing the US on November 1, then England a week later, followed by Scotland and Wales, the All Blacks hope to simulate a World Cup schedule with the view that the three games in the UK are effectively a quarter-final, semifinal and final.

This year's tour will form the last real campaign the All Blacks have before next year's World Cup. There are no June tests in World Cup year and the Four Nations will be truncated - it is thought there will be one and-a-half rounds where New Zealand play South Africa and Argentina once each and Australia twice on a home and away basis. Under that format, they will play either the Pumas or the Boks away and may replicate the 2011 strategy of leaving many senior players behind.

The All Blacks may look to squeeze in a warm-up test before the Four Nations next year but there's little dispute that the end of this year will form a significant part of their World Cup preparations, especially as they will play in the UK, where the next tournament will be hosted.

All Black coach Steve Hansen and manager Darren Shand are in the UK researching potential World Cup bases and it's possible, to further authenticate the World Cup simulation, that the team will stay at the chosen venue on the end of year tour.

The American venture is, then, a valid rugby odyssey - Hansen will be able to see how well he can transition his troops from playing a team such as the US to taking on England seven days later. The All Blacks faced a similar challenge last year when they played Japan in Tokyo, then France seven days later. They won both but the performance against the French was rusty.

"This is a really exciting opportunity for New Zealand Rugby," says NZRU chief executive Steve Tew. Photo / Brett Phibbs
"This is a really exciting opportunity for New Zealand Rugby," says NZRU chief executive Steve Tew. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Yet despite the validity of the sporting challenge, the NZRU says the game will have obvious value to AIG - which is important without being the over-riding reason the All Blacks are there.

"This is a really exciting opportunity for New Zealand Rugby," says NZRU chief executive Steve Tew.

"We are looking at the match largely for rugby reasons, particularly a year out from Rugby World Cup 2015. There are obviously also advantages for our sponsors and in particular for our major global sponsor AIG, in bringing the All Blacks to their largest market.

"While we are hopeful of making it happen, we are still working through details and are some way off confirming arrangements."

The American insurer has had a clear goal since it signed in 2012 - they want the All Blacks to play a test in front of an American audience.

The company is headquartered in New York; most of its employees are based in the States and it's the main consumer market for its retail products.

- Herald on Sunday

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