This fall, the All Blacks, New Zealand's World Cup champion rugby team, and the Irish national team will face off at Soldier Field in Chicago.
For those unfamiliar with rugby (which is most Americans) the All Blacks are like the New York Yankees of the sport -- if the Yankees were actually good enough to have won five out of every six games they've ever played. The Irish team is no slouch -- it reached No. 2 in the world last August -- but its level of international success isn't as accomplished as New Zealand, where rugby is the most popular sport.
"You couldn't go very far in New Zealand on a Saturday morning or afternoon where there wouldn't be kids outside throwing a rugby ball," says Ryan Crotty, center of the All Blacks.
Football is often used as a comparison and a contrast when trying to explain rugby to new fans in the U.S.
"I suppose it's kind of like the NFL without the pads and the helmets," says Irish wing Tommy Bowe. "That's probably the best way to describe it. It's a very fast, physical, energetic sport, so it’s kind of like football but a little different.
"Given that the American football guys wear pads, you see some of the tackles that are just incredible. But with rugby, it's non-stop. There's no stoppage in between plays, just 80 minutes, and there's some pretty tough hits in there."
Bowe grew up playing a lot different sports, but rugby was the one he enjoyed the most. He said his dad is a huge rugby fan and that they attended a lot of matches together.
Bowe says rugby ranks third in popularity behind Gaelic football and soccer in Ireland, but that still accounts for a "massive" following. The top professional league, Pro12, features 12 teams from Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Italy.
For American fans, some aspects of rugby may be difficult to understand.
"I’m sure probably some of the Irish accents, or some of the different accents, when you hear people get interviewed after (the game), that’s probably one of the hardest parts," Bowe says with a laugh.
He continues on a more serious note, "The most difficult (rule) is that the ball can't be passed forward. It has to be passed backwards."
Crotty agrees with Bowe about the passing rule being the most notable difference, but says there are many others, especially with scoring, that confuse Americans. But he is optimistic about the sport's chance to grow in the United States, citing the favorable response to the All Blacks' match in 2014 against the USA Eagles that drew an estimated crowd of 61,500 at Soldier Field.
"The TV ratings for the last game were increasing as the game was going on," Crotty says. "Hopefully, some young kids might think that it’s a pretty cool game and they’ll want to get into it. We love it, and there’s so much potential here in America for rugby to be massive. I don’t know if it would ever get to the same level as the NFL, but there's so much potential here."
And Crotty says he and his teammates are proof that you can be fans of both sports as they participated in a fantasy football league last season.
"Matt Forte's been pretty good to me the last couple of years and I'll have to see how he’ll do without Chicago," Crotty says. "I love watching all the running backs, obviously with rugby, you get to carry the ball a lot. I always watch Marshawn Lynch just because of how powerful and how good he was on his feet."
And as a competitor, Crotty still likes winning fantasy football too.
"It's pretty cool when you win a game you get bragging rights over everyone," Crotty says. "I lost in the semifinals (this year) … but I’ll be back next year."
As for the U.S., Crotty and Bowe will be back in November. The Maori All Blacks (players of Maori whakapapa or genealogy) take on the USA Eagles (U.S. National Team) at Toyota Park in Bridgeview, Illinois, on Nov. 4. The following day, the All Blacks will battle the Irish National Team at Soldier Field.
During their promotional visit to the United States in February, Crotty and Bowe met with USA Eagles player Andrew Suniula and Chicago Bears running back/full back Paul Lasike, a native New Zealander. Tickets for both Chicagoland matches are available at TheRugbyWeekend.com.