Legendary New Zealand Rugby Squad Rolls Against U.S. at Fedex Field (photos)

“Rugby is great. The players don’t wear helmets or padding; they just beat the living daylights out of each other and then go for a beer. I love that.” – Joe Theismann.

The game is said to have originated at Rugby School in England when in 1823, one William Webb Ellis, during a game of football (a.k.a. soccer), decided to pick up the ball and run with it. Though there is little evidence to support this claim, The William Webb Ellis Cup is presented to the winners of the Rugby World Cup. A better story moves us ahead to 1845 at Rugby School when formal rules were codified. (Bibliophiles may recognize Rugby School as the setting of Thomas Hughes’ classic “Tom Brown’s School Days.”)

The sport gained popularity and is now watched by an estimated 475 million people worldwide (comparable to the number who follow baseball). But Rugby is far more popular in the individual countries that make up the United Kingdom, plus other Commonwealth and former Commonwealth countries such as Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. World Rugby, the governing body for rugby union since 1886, currently has 101 countries as full members and 18 associate members.

Rugby is a progenitor of American Football and the two games bear more than a superficial resemblance. Both are contact sports involving intense physical aggression and raw power where teams try to kick, carry, or pass a ball over an end line to score points. But while football requires the wearing of helmets and padding, in Rugby, players are protected with only a mouthguard.

On Saturday, October 23, 40,000 rugby enthusiasts gathered at Fedex Field just outside Washington D.C. for a rare opportunity to see one of the most elite teams in the world, the New Zealand All Blacks, face off against the United States men’s national rugby union team, nicknamed the Eagles, for the “1874 Cup.” The name acknowledges the year of the first organized rugby match in the U.S. This contest coincided with an American bid to host the Rugby World Cup in 2027 (although 2031 is more likely.) It would be the first time a men’s Rugby World Cup would be held in North or South America. Washington would be slated to be one of the host cities.

No country has won more rugby world cups (3) than New Zealand. “The only way we’re really going to compete from a long-term perspective is having more regular games against the bigger boys,” said Ross Young, CEO of USA Rugby, the sport’s national governing body. “The All Blacks are the biggest brand in rugby; it’s like watching Brazil in soccer. Hopefully this helps us raise the profile and opens the doors for more people to then come and play the game.”

The All Blacks are clearly the biggest draw in the game. Washington was their first stop on a tour which will also include Wales, Italy, Ireland and France.

Overmatched as they were, the Eagles entered the game missing some of their key players. The match fell outside the established international “window” for world play when European clubs would be obliged to release their American players to the U.S. Team.

The eventual outcome was somewhat predictable as the All Blacks prevailed over the USA Eagles squad by a final score of 104-14. The All Blacks scored the first of a their 16 tries after only 28 seconds, before some fans even had time to reach their seats. It was a harbinger of things to come as the All Blacks built a 59-0 lead before the Eagles were able to break the ice with a score just before half-time.

In the preliminary game, Army defeated Navy in a closely contested match, 24-17, not decided until the closing minutes. The Army squad sprinted to a 17-0 lead only to see Navy tie late in the game.

Intrinsic to any contest against the All Blacks is the Māori Haka dance, performed by the entire team prior to every match. The Māori are the indigenous Polynesian people of mainland New Zealand, who were known for their fierceness in battle. Before going to war all the warriors performed the Haka, during which they would wave their weapons, stick out their tongues and make frightening combat poses and noises. Combined with their unique tattoos the Haka dance was a warning, with the intention of inspiring fear and panic upon the enemy.

Watching the action on the field from the lower level was Matt Godek, the proprietor of Matt Godek Rugby & Soccer Supply in Merrifield Va., a major supplier to the sport since 1978 and a recipient of a US Rugby Hall of Fame Lifetime Achievement Award for his support of the game in America. “Everybody that has associated with rugby knows of the All Blacks and my bet is they just want to see them, or say the have,” he says.

Michael Norby who plays rugby for the Columbus Ohio Castaways who had a prime seat on the first row was ecstatic to be able to see the All Blacks. He “teared up” when his wife bought him the tickets for a first anniversary present. “Everyone who knows rugby knows the All Blacks.”

In New Zealand, Rugby is the de facto national sport. “I’m so excited to be here” says Carla Stevenson from Charleston South Carolina and originally from Ashburton on New Zealand’s South Island. Like many other New Zealand expats, she came up just for the game. Gary, another “kiwi” from Whangarei on New Zealand’s North Island and now living in St. Petersburg Fla. also came up just for the game. He admires the All Blacks for their “open and positive style of play.” He will travel anywhere in the country any time to see his team play.

Godek marvels at the All Blacks’ speed and cohesion. “The All Blacks in my opinion are half again as fast as the U.S. team in their movements.” Each player is part of a unified whole, anticipating their teammates’ next moves. They owe their success to their total dedication to the sport and the way they train with almost military precision. “They trust that what they do will have positive consequences in their movements. Everything is instinctive.” The essence of teamwork. “They focus the whole match 100 percent for [the entire] 80 minutes.” He added, “It’s a culture of intensity and athletics and country pride when these young men step on the field.” They are an elite bunch. “There is a lot of vetting that goes into their being selected (for the All Blacks), more than most can comprehend.”

“When you play the best tackle team in the world that’s what’s going to happen for 80 minutes,” commented, Gary Gold, the Eagles’ coach. “It’s a very tough lesson, but it is a lesson and we will learn from it, we most certainly will.”

You can view a slideshow of Jeff Malet’s photos of the match between the USA Eagles and the New Zealand All Blacks by clicking on the photo icons below.


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