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The All Blacks last played the Eagles on American soil during the Carter administration, and striking are the similarities between the hype and coverage for that game 34 years ago and that of the one coming up Nov. 1.
The USA lost 53-6 Oct. 8, 1980 in San Diego Stadium, the home of the Chargers and Padres at the time, and the game was carried by ESPN – then a one-year-old budding cable network. In just over four months, the Eagles will again host the All Blacks, this time at Soldier Field in Chicago, the home of the NFL’s Chicago Bears, live on NBC.
A 1980 RUGBY Magazine article dubbed the All Black match the, “most important game in U.S. history”. You get the sense that’s how USA Rugby and Eagle fans are looking at the upcoming November test.
The ’80 game pulled in 14,000 fans – a record for an Eagle test at the time.
“Despite the rabid encouragement of 14,000 rugby fans in Charger Stadium, New Zealand’s All Black juggernaut could not be halted by the U.S. Eagles,” read the 1980 RUGBY Magazine article chronicling the game.
This year’s match is expected to sell out the 61,500-seat Soldier Field, which would make it not only the most attended international match on American soil, but the most attended rugby event of any kind on American soil.
(Some of the rugby "Big Games" between Cal and Stanford in the early 1900s, when American football was abandoned for safety concerns, would draw in the neighborhood of 20,000 to 25,000 fans (including standees). And the USA 7s has broken the 30,000 barrier the last couple of years for its three-day attendance.)
November’s test will be carried live on NBC, which is a milestone for 15s in America. Hopes of heightened rugby coverage and a possible professional league are pinned to the success of the broadcast. Similar expectations were attached to the ’80 broadcast, as indicated by the below excerpt from Sports Illustrated’s article on the match.
- The All Blacks continued to pound on and led 21-0 at halftime. Meanwhile, the spectators were still filing in, prompting one San Diegan to say, "People are always arriving late in this town, to everything. I've seen lines outside live theater an hour after curtain time." And the new arrivals were being shunted to the seats on the side of the field opposite the four TV cameras. Tony Scott, who was working the broadcast for ESPN, had said, "This game will make or break televised rugby in this country." But he did not say which was more important, a good showing by the Eagles or a stadium that seemed packed.
That begs a question that’s still very relevant today – is just being on live television with a record audience enough to propel American rugby into the stratosphere, or do the Eagles need to actually be competitive in the contest? Will a close loss, or God forbid a win, equal a ‘make’ for American rugby, and a bludgeoning a ‘break’?
In 1913, the USA fell to New Zealand 51-3, and in 1980 the Eagles lost by one less point. “At that rate the U.S. can expect a tie game in the year 5129,” the ’80 SI article pointed out.
The rate was accelerated a bit by a 40-point loss at the 1991 World Cup in Gloucester, England, and a hotly contested loss to the Maori All Blacks last fall was promising. While no one expects the Eagles to win in November, some might anticipate they give the All Blacks a tougher game than ever before, if it even matters.
“They’re scared to death. They’ve got everything to lose by playing us and nothing to gain,” Eagle manager Bob Watkins told SI of the All Blacks back in 1980, “but win or lose, we’ll be pushed farther into the international sphere and out of an era when U.S. Rugby was just a social sport.”