US Eagles 6-74 New Zealand
Kiwis blow away Eagles in Windy City
Tom Hamilton in Chicago
November 1, 2014
© Getty Images

Rugby posts on Soldier Field was a strange sight. Whenever a sport is showcased in a foreign environment, grounding with the familiar is sought. The All Blacks were compared to the dominant US basketball team in the run up to Saturday's match in Chicago. Two months ago New Zealand met the USA in Bilbao in the Basketball World Cup. The Kiwis mustered 71 points; the All Blacks went three better than their basketball counterparts on Saturday as they hit 74 against the Eagles in front of a soldout 61,500 crowd.

For rugby in the US, the result - a 74-6 loss - was never that important though their supporters would have wanted to see a try. The All Blacks were always going to win and handsomely at that but it was a match where the importance of the occasion transcended the score. This was about showcasing rugby to America and those who were lucky enough to secure tickets for the game revelled in the occasion.

The car parks outside Soldier Field, a berth costing you $49, were a hubbub of activity; beer aplenty was being drunk and spilled while the smell from pop-up barbecues cooking all manner of beasts intermingled in the air with the sound of rugby songs. On approach to the ground 'Fields of Athenry' was being sung by a group from Texas and closer to the stadium, a man stood on the back of a car with a chorus of wide-eyed devotees at his feet singing verses which would make a renegade teenager blush. Passers by filmed, giggled and shuffled on.

Sonny Bill Williams runs clear, US Eagles v New Zealand, Soldier Field, Chicago, November 1, 2014
Sonny Bill Williams put on a masterclass © Getty Images

It was a melting pot of supporters, players and those dipping their toe in the rugby water for the first time. The only sign of animosity, and a brief one at that, was when people dodged queues at the merchandise stalls. According to one trader, All Blacks shirts were just edging Eagles' for demand.

For those Bears fans who would be used to seeing a different shaped oval ball being thrown on the hallowed turf - 4,000 season ticket holders invested to see the match - there were a few signs of the familiar with Auckland-born defensive tackle Stephen Paea housed in a tent in the fan park to pose for photographs. Super Bowl winner Dan Hampton handed the match ball to referee Craig Joubert. Eagles openside Scott LaValla also harked back to his American football roots with a quarterback-style lineout throw.

But this was rugby's occasion. On Wednesday on Michigan Avenue you saw maybe one or two hats with white-ferns embroidered; come Friday rugby was the talk of Chicago with All Black shirts dominating hotels, bars and restaurants.

There was pressure on New Zealand to put on a show - "we need to create the wow factor" was Steve Hansen's message in the lead-up to the game. And they played the role perfectly.

Soldier On: What next for American rugby?

  • On Saturday, Chicago hosted the biggest event in American rugby history as the US Eagles took on the All Blacks. The key is what happens next: how does the sport build on the spike in interest? What will it take to wake the sleeping giant? Tom Hamilton asked the question to powerbrokers, coaches and players…
  • Read the feature here

From the first throws of the match, the All Blacks attacked with ruthless incision. The first penalty was quick-tapped by Aaron Cruden - this was not a match for taking the easy three - and Nathan Harris crashed over in the corner. The crowd did their best to give the Eagles a boost with sporadic chants of "USA, USA, USA" but from minute one the gulf in class was blindingly obvious.

All Blacks runs cut holes in the Eagles' porous defence and virtually every opportunity they had, they punished the hosts. Sonny Bill Williams marked his return to union with two tries though he will likely never have a free-run again in a Test match like he did on Saturday. Cory Jane, a self-proclaimed fan of all things American sport, ensured he left Soldier Field with a try before he was forced off prior to half-time. If ever there was need for reinforcement of the difference in quality between the two sides, it was emphasised when the All Blacks were able to bring on the world's best winger Julian Savea to replace the crocked Jane.

And then there was Kieran Read. His offload for Savea's try was sublime and he also got through a huge amount of work putting in 14 tackles. Israel Dagg also enjoyed the freedom of Soldier Field making 125 metres with ball in hand and getting one score of his own.

Folau Niua is tackled, US Eagles v New Zealand, Soldier Field, Chicago, November 1, 2014
Folau Niua finds the way blocked © Getty Images

The Eagles did not surrender and they played with heart; at one stage they put together a 15-phase play which ended with Adam Siddall slotting three points. Blaine Scully took one restart superbly, it was received with rapturous applause, while Samu Manoa's physicality asked a few questions of the Kiwis' defence. Seamus Kelly, in the biggest game of his life, did well at outside centre. Chris Wyles also showed moments of class.

Prior to the game, Eagles coach Mike Tolkin called for his players to leave nothing bar "blood and guts" on the field. They did that with Tolkin talking of how proud he was of the team when he sat in front of the press moments after the final whistle.

US Rugby and the various stakeholders now need to build on the interest shown in the match in Chicago. Selling out Soldier Field was a monumental feat, that there were barely any empty seats in the dying embers of the match despite the one-sided nature of the game is something for the organisers and American rugby stakeholders to cling on to. "The memory of today will stay with me for a lifetime," was captain Todd Clever's wide-eyed response to how he found the match.

The Eagles will now come back to earth with games against Romania, Tonga and Fiji in the coming weeks. For the All Blacks, this was business as usual. It was beautifully brutal but England at Twickenham next Saturday will be an altogether different proposition.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
Tom Hamilton is the Associate Editor of ESPNscrum.

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