MIND THE GAP

Here’s what happens when a New York high school teacher plays the best rugby team in the world

Obsession
Business of Sport
Obsession
Business of Sport

In the US, there’s only one sport where large men run at each other catching oddly-shaped balls: it’s what the Americans call “football,” as exemplified by Friday Night Lights and the NFL. For the rest of the world, that sport is rugby, and over the weekend, the US national rugby team faced New Zealand in the biggest rugby match to ever be held in the US.

It was quite a mismatch. New Zealand’s All Blacks are the world champions and are ranked number one in the world. The US is ranked 18th—which is probably higher than you expected. The US Eagles were trounced 74-6 on Saturday. (To put that into perspective, in the Six Nations tournament, there are usually 3-4 tries per side, so it’s pretty rare to see scores in a game go into the 30s.)

Here, the All Blacks perform their famous pre-match war dance:

The sport of rugby is so obscure that many of the Eagles are part-timers. Mike Petri, the scrum-half, is also a teacher at Xavier High School in New York. Petri wrote about the gulf in class for The Guardian as he went from teaching math (and rugby) to kids and “playing for New York Athletic Club in a park in Boston” to playing against the world’s best:

I’ve been working really hard on my fitness and I was feeling really good. But the pace and the standard of the game was like nothing I’ve ever experienced…. I saw why the All Blacks are world champions: they’re just ruthless, punishing any and every mistake you make… I’d say half their points or more came from Eagles errors. They were just lethal.

Petri sums up the American approach to sport (and life) when he says that he believes that the US team could be as good as the New Zealanders if they could face them more often. This is only the fourth time the two sides have every played, and first time the All Blacks have played in the US since 1980:

We learned so much – the game showed us where we need to be. If we could play the All Blacks every week we could learn quickly, even if it would be a painful kind of way to learn…

That is pretty unlikely. It takes much more than hard work to bridge a gap in talent and experience on this kind of scale. New Zealand have won the most games of any team in rugby history—76% of its matches since the team first played in 1884.

At least the US faces some easier competition in its next few games—Romania, Tonga, and Fiji.

Despite the painfully-lopsided scoreline, there are some positives to be taken away from New Zealand-US Eagles match. The game sold out 63,000 at Soldier’s Field in Chicago, setting an attendance record for rugby in the US. The sport’s growing profile comes at a time when football is facing an existential crisis over concussions—though a sport played with no body armor is probably not the solution most people were looking for.

There are also huge affection between fans of rugby and gridiron. England, where rugby is the second sport, has been selling out NFL games at the national stadium for the past few years and talk grows of a London-based franchise. Several All Blacks players are in a fantasy football league together. “All the boys are usually on their phones, checking their teams,” said New Zealand’s Keven Mealamu, who made time to visit the Chicago Bears training facility. “There’s quite a big following of NFL fans on our team. There’s a lot of smack talk.”

There is talk now of holding a Six Nations game in the US to show potential fans how the sport looks at the highest level. And Australian rugby star Jarryd Hayne recently quit the game to “have a crack” at the NFL:

For those who would like to learn more on how rugby works, here is a pretty straightforward guide.

home our picks popular latest obsessions search