Forget football in Soldier Field — rugby is the name of the game
Ever since the U.S. national men’s rugby union team hosted the New Zealand All Blacks – a premier team in world rugby – at Chicago’s Soldier Field in 2014, Chicago has become a hub of rugby activity.
The All Blacks returned to Soldier Field in 2016 to take on Ireland in a thrilling match that came down to the last second. This year the home of the Chicago Bears once again hosted the U.S. rugby team when it also faced off against Ireland.
Stephanie Esposito, vice president of marketing for Rugby Illinois, said the recent international games in Chicago have helped introduce new fans to the game.
“The last four years Chicago has hosted international games,” Esposito said. “ The All Blacks have played here twice. Ireland has played here recently, too, and that exposure has definitely helped."
Rugby Illinois is responsible for coordinating and overseeing youth rugby games in Illinois, and Esposito said this year there are 2,500 registered players.
Esposito also said that one thing that has helped the sport expand is the fact that a lot of people who played rugby in college are now having children and want their kids to get into the sport.
Steve Krause, head coach of the Plainfield Thundercats, a team of high school-aged kids, is one example, Esposito said. Krause played rugby in college, then played club rugby for the Chicago Blaze. Krause started coaching the Thundercats in 2000.
“Most coaches got into rugby either in college or were exposed to it somehow,” Krause said. “Most probably played club rugby and just wanted to give back and grow the game that we know and love.”
According to Krause, rugby has seen considerable growth in the state over the 17 years he has been coaching. He said that Rugby Illinois has helped get more kids into it and organize the game in a professional manner.
“Over 17 years, it has grown immensely,” he said. “I’m pretty sure when we started we had somewhere around 10 teams or less. Now there are over 50 teams in Illinois.”
Krause said there is a good turnover rate among rugby players, with a lot of high-schoolers moving on and passing on their knowledge to others.
“A lot of kids that play high school rugby end up going onto college rugby and become the leaders of that organization because they know what’s going on,” he said. “A lot of my players have done that, and I think it’s true for a lot of other clubs as well."
Esposito said there is a 10 percent to 20 percent growth in the number of rugby clubs yearly, and more players are registering with Rugby Illinois all the time.
For more information about rugby or find a club near you, visit www.rugbyillinois.us.