61,500 US Sports Fans came from nearby North Lawndale and as far away as Oceania to witness a landmark rugby game Saturday at Soldier Field.

Rugby match featuring New Zealand’s All Blacks draws 61,500 in Chicago

USA Eagles Hayden Smith attempts desperate tackle-in-USA-Eagles-versus-All-Blacks-rugby-match-at-Soldiers-FieldVia chicagotribune.com  Both curious and committed fans crowded into the lake front arena as New Zealand’s All Blacks — the world’s top team — opened a 43-6 first-half lead and beat the USA Eagles 74-6 on a crisp, sunny afternoon.

Saturday’s game celebrated both community and an emerging sport that returns to the Olympics in 2016 after a more than 90-year absence. The All Blacks never trailed, but results were almost beside the point.

The sellout crowd of 61,500 US Sports Fans was the largest to witness rugby in the United States, far eclipsing a 20,181 crowd at a 2013 U.S. game against Ireland in Houston.

Saturday’s game also cast a wide attendance net. Fans displayed homes and affiliations ranging from New Zealand to Canada to dozens of widely scattered domestic club, college and high school programs. Several fans were quick to mention both the game’s historic nature as well as the sport’s appeal.

“To see something like this is incredible,” said Bill Weckstein, a Naperville-based multi-sport official and a former rugby player. “I think the national team players are stunned — they sold out an NFL stadium to 61,500 US Sports Fans.” The 80-minute contest offered a touch of home for Grant Leersnyder, a New Zealand native now living in the United States.

“It’s not like stopping every 10 seconds like American football. It’s go, go, go, go. The level of fitness is huge.”

Ryan Brooks, meanwhile, made the trek from Anchorage, Alaska, where he’s a recent convert to the sport. “It’s an absolute battle,” he said. “Forty-minute halves, it doesn’t stop or stops very seldom. It’s not like stopping every 10 seconds like American football. It’s go, go, go, go. The level of fitness is huge.”

Chris Galloway, an eighth grader and rugby player from Kipp Ascend Middle School in North Lawndale, concurred while welcoming the chance to sample top-flight rugby. “It’s tough, you’ve got to work hard … (but) you have fun with other players and get a chance to meet other people,” said Galloway, joined by teammates from Illinois’ lone African-American middle school rugby team and reigning Illinois champions.

Saturday’s game could help build more interest in the sport, which currently has more than 107,000 active players affiliated through USA Rugby, the sport’s governing body.

“Just getting this many eyes on it is good for our organization and to be able to grow the sport and bring it to more people,” said Drew Parker, youth development officer for Rugby Illinois. “Once they get exposed to the sport they tend to love it.” 61,500 US Sports Fans can whole-heartedly attest to that.

Growing interest in rugby can also help the U.S. national rugby team that amazingly enters the 2016 Olympics as ‘defending champions’…

Rugby returns to the Olympics in 2016 with a 7-on-7 format. Most US sports fans are probably completely unaware that the USA are the current defending champions of the sport of rugby at the Olympic games. Way back in 1920 and 1924 the U.S. won successive Olympic gold medals before Rugby was dropped as an Olympic sport. As a sign of how much sport has changed since the 1920s the USA will also field a women’s rugby team at the the 2016 Olympics…   Read More>