Rugby caused a brief stir on the American sports landscape late last year when Ireland beat New Zealand, 40-29, at Soldier Field in Chicago. It was the first time ever that the Ireland Men's National Rugby Team had beaten its counterpart from New Zealand in the 111 years (at the time) since the two sides started playing each other. The near-always world's best All Blacks were rocked by a first-half scoring blitz that saw the Irish take a 25-8 lead into half-time. And they made it 30-8 early in the second half, but the New Zealanders battled back to within four points to set up a tense closing 15 minutes of the match. As the game ticked into its final five minutes, Ireland's Robbie Henshaw tilted the game back to the men in green, scoring the decisive try that established the 11-point winning-margin of one of the most famous results in international rugby history.
Throughout, the green side of the game was buoyed by a large and largely pro-Irish crowd: 62,300 tickets were sold; most, if not all, seats were filled at Soldier Field that day. It was reportedly the largest crowd ever drawn for a rugby international on American soil, and it was surprising that Chicago had 60,000+ bodies with energy and enthusiasm to spare given that much of the city was still celebrating the Cubs winning the World Series just three days before. On November 2, 2016, the Chicago Cubs clinched their first Major League Baseball championship since 1908; on November 5, Ireland beat the All Blacks for the first time ever in a series that dates back to 1905: it was a week for sporting history in Chicago.
"We didn't know what to expect," Andrew Trimble, a veteran Ireland rugby international and a starter for his country at Soldier Field, recalled in a phone interview with Once A Metro. "It was such a unique occasion, we didn't know. It was like a Carnival atmosphere, especially after the game," he said, admitting that "people are getting fed up with the 23 guys [in the Ireland squad that day] telling stories about it, but we'll be talking about it a long to come."
“It wasn’t even just the day,” Trimble continued, “there was a bit of buzz in town, a bit of atmosphere. The Cubs had created a bit of history a couple of days before - we just had to create a bit more history.”
“As Americans, we appreciate the pinnacle of competition,” said Blaine Scully, co-captain of the US Men’s National Rugby Team, who was also on the line with OaM. “It was rugby at its best,” he said of November’s Shock at Soldier Field. “Even if you don’t know much about the sport, you can appreciate it as a product for the American marketplace.”
Advancing rugby’s profile in the American marketplace has long been a preoccupation of those inside the sport. A national professional league, PRO Rugby, was launched in 2016, and a second - Major League Rugby - is reportedly planning to launch in 2018. A sustainable, domestic professional league remains something of an unproven American rugby dream (PRO Rugby has had some issues that have put its second season in doubt), but so too was pro soccer in 1996, when MLS launched itself as merely the latest attempt to boost a sport that also seemed predestined for obscurity in the USA.
But there is evidence that rugby’s popularity in North America is growing. The USA Sevens tournament has made record-setting attendance an annual habit. Its Canadian counterpart, hosted in Vancouver, has quickly set similar expectations. The Guiness Pro 12 - a pro league that comprises clubs from Ireland, Italy, Scotland, and Wales - is eyeing an expansion across the Atlantic, talking up a plan to establish teams in the US and Canada. And, of course, the fact the sport recently attracted a memorable crowd to a memorable game in Chicago does no harm at all to the argument that rugby’s American audience is growing.
“It’s pleasing to see where rugby is going in America,” said Trimble, “And great to see the Irish team and Irish people all over the States playing a part in it.”
The Irish will seek to continue to play their part in the American rugby story on June 10, 2017, when they play the USA at Red Bull Arena.
“It was so successful, such a big hit,” said Trimble, recalling Ireland’s Soldier Field experience, “We get a lot of support over there, we want to try and replicate that occasion. Our boys are really looking forward to it.”
So too are the USA’s Eagles. As Scully explained, the opportunity for the team to test itself against one of the world’s best is always welcomed: “[Ireland] are playing really good rugby at the moment. We want to see where we are against one of the best in the world.”
Scully gets to test himself against the best in the world regularly: he plays his club rugby for Cardiff Blues in the Pro 12 - the same league as Trimble’s Ulster. It is no longer unusual to find the USA’s better players at some of the world’s better teams, but the path to the pro game is still perhaps a little different for American players than their European counterparts.
Trimble has been playing “since I was six or seven; I didn’t have much choice”, he recalled with a laugh. The Ulsterman made his international debut in 2005; Scully, who turned 29 this year, didn’t even know the rules of the game when Trimble was making his first appearance for his country.
Scully discovered the sport at 18 at college (UCLA): “I was the typical American kid - I played everything. Rugby kind of found me, and as soon as I touched a ball I fell in love with it.”
The ambition to play professionally soon followed and, with the right advice and encouragement, he developed into a player who caught the eye of Leicester Tigers - arguably the standout club of the modern era of professional rugby in England - in 2013. Two seasons with Leicester were followed by a move to current club Cardiff.
The 29-year-old has come a long way in the 11 years or so he has been playing rugby. Although he doesn’t regard his path to the pro game as unusual for an American player, the fact he is a pro at all is still somewhat remarkable: the USA Eagles are now expected to field a handful of professionals, but the bulk of the national team’s player pool is still amateur. And whenever Scully leads the US out to play a Tier 1 rugby nation (essentially the best-resourced, best-established international teams in the world) like Ireland, he knows he is up against sides for whom Trimble’s story is the norm while he captains one in which his own is still an exception.
It is that gap in experience of the game that tends to divide the world’s best rugby teams from its also-rans and up-and-comers. And it is closing that gap to which Scully was referring in an interview with the BBC last year when he said:
The challenge for us is exposing younger athletes to rugby earlier.
It is no accident that the USA hasn’t beaten a Tier 1 opponent since the 1920s (France). And if the Eagles were to beat Ireland on June 10, it would be a much bigger upset than the one the Irish recorded over the All Blacks in Chicago last November. (111 years is a long time, but Ireland is one of the top five teams in the world and - as finally proven - has long looked capable of beating any opponent on its day.)
There won’t be anything like 60,000 people at Red Bull Arena on June 10 to see how the Eagles match up against the Irish: the stadium only holds 25,000 or so. But if the game can draw another full house (or close to it; even the Arena’s home team, the New York Red Bulls, only occasionally plays to a sold-out stadium) then it will be taken as further evidence that there is a viable audience for top-quality rugby in America.
For its part, Red Bull Arena has been an occasional contributor to the growth of the game in the USA since it opened. Scully was part of the USA squad that played a Churchill Cup game at the Arena in 2010. He remembers “a beautiful stadium”. And in 2016, the Arena once again loaned itself to rugby, hosting London Irish and Saracens in an Aviva Premiership match on March 12.
Trimble has never been to RBA, but he is familiar with New York, having recently holidayed in the city with his wife. “We’re looking forward to our children getting older so they can get looked after and we can go again,” he said. He will be waiting a while for that particular opportunity - one of his children was not yet born when he spoke to Once A Metro.
An Ireland international for most of his adult life, Trimble’s St. Patrick’s Day is typically given over to the annual Six Nations tournament that brings Europe’s top national teams together for a hard-fought highlight of the rugby calendar. “There’s usually a bit of distraction,” he said of his March 17 routine. This year, however, while Ireland plays England in Dublin on March 18, Trimble’s eyes will be foremost on his growing family: he and his wife, Anna, expect their second child “any day now”.
If selected to the Ireland squad for a summer tour that will see the USA game followed by two matches against Japan, it might be Trimble’s best chance to see New York again in the immediate future. It will also be a rare chance to match up against Scully.
Their clubs are in the same league, but neither man could remember playing against each other since Ireland played the USA in the 2011 Rugby World Cup, in a match that has particular significance to Scully - it was played on the 10th anniversary of 9/11. “It was intense, we were prepared to run through any number of brick walls,” he recalled of that day in New Zealand.
It was a less memorable occasion for Trimble: “I only got on in the last five or 10 minutes, knocked the ball on, and didn’t touch the ball again.”
The two men might see each other sooner rather than later. Trimble is currently recovering from an early-March hand injury that ruled him out of the last two games of Ireland’s 2017 Six Nations. He is pleased with his progress to date - “Surgery was successful and the swelling has gone out of it” - and he is targeting a return to the field for Ulster’s Pro 12 match on April 7, against Cardiff Blues.
“I might catch up with you again then,” he told Scully. Or they might catch up with each other on June 10 at Red Bull Arena.