Rugby in America ‘shoots for the moon’

History made with MLR & San Diego Legion record crowd

San Diego Legion’s first game of the 2023 MLR season

In 1962, President John F. Kennedy had a wish, an eagerness to win a race and change the world. He announced that “this nation (USA) should commit itself to achieving the goal…landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth”. It was a task that would take seven years, costing billions of dollars, yet with the belief that, as a nation and with the help of others around the world, it could be achieved. The journey would be known as Operation Mercury, and eventually on July 20th, 1969, NASA’s Apollo 11 landed on the surface of the moon and astronaut Neil Armstrong made John F. Kennedy’s wish a reality.

Where am I going with this…? It felt symbolic that I heard that full story on the same weekend that rugby in America had a historic moment of its own. One that I was very much part of.

A wish to show the growth of rugby in America become a reality. To host an event that would be ‘world-class worthy’, a show-piece that warranted a Rugby World Cup in 2031 and set a standard where sports fans would take rugby, in America, seriously.

Snapdragon Stadium, San Diego

At a time where the sport has been struggling globally, as financial ruin causes severe impacts on clubs, leagues and unions around the world, Saturday brought a shift in the sport’s global capability. A new Major League Rugby attendance record was smashed, at a single game, as my team, San Diego Legion, beat the Utah Warriors in ‘Round One’ of the 2023 MLR season. With intense planning, endless meetings and ticket sale drives, alongside an ‘Americanised’ experience, rugby fans in America, and around the world, stood up and took note as 11,423 fans flocked into the seats at Snapdragon Stadium, a state-of-the-art facility located in San Diego.

I arrived two hours before kick-off, giving me the time to get my usual strapping, do my individual preparation and for us as a team to warm ourselves up before the game began. I’ve been fortunate enough to represent the USA national team and play in some impressive venues around the world, where fans build the atmosphere and hype before you enter the ground. Rarely in my time had I truly seen a rugby game in America generate a real ‘buzz’. Saturday felt different, entering the facility felt different, it had the feeling that something special was happening and it was only the first game of the season!

A fanfare of food stalls, music, entertainment, local business advertisements and drinking stands, met fans before they even considered entering Snapdragon’s arena. Legendary San Diego DJ, Dj Z-Trip, was firing out the tunes, the Legion colours of red and black engulfed the stadium’s surrounds as kids threw rugby balls and attempted to give it their finest kick. The car parks began to fill up and tailgating was out in full force, it was like America was putting its stamp on how a rugby experience should operate.

Meanwhile my focus was within the locker room, filled with modern technology, televisions everywhere and neon lights making you feel like you were in a NASA spaceship. The physios were able to spread across an abundance of tables lined up in their numbers. The coaches had enough room to conduct the warm up inside. The tunnel lit up, modernised to include a fan experience where loved ones could see players walk out from the dressing room, giving some last encouragement before stepping out into the arena. It was different, but a good kind of different. Players connecting with the fans and vice-versa. I couldn’t help but feel that a rugby traditionalist would be shaking their head…at Twickenham this doesn’t happen!

As the Navy Leap Frogs parachuted their way into the stadium, proudly showing the stars and stripes of the American flag, further military personal paraded impeccably in the middle of the field as the national anthem rang out. It didn’t matter whether you were a rugby super-fan or a rugby-newby, the excitement was real and San Diego Legion, along with Major League Rugby, were well and truly taking centre stage.

The floodlights came on as the rugby was playing. We, the Legion, battling against our Warriors counterparts on the carpet laid turf. DJ Z-Trip continued to play during the breaks in play, rugby lingo was being explained on the big screen, and the crowd were encouraged to ‘get involved’. It was a big educational day for some, but it was a day and evening full of fun. As a player it had the most professional feeling, the aura of test match. The stadium, the atmosphere and joy felt worthy of the highest level. A day where World Rugby will have been smiling, as the wish to grow rugby in America, building towards a 2031 Rugby World Cup on US soil, aiming to send the sport into another stratosphere, was unravelling in front of their eyes.

As the game finished, with a win for San Diego, we (the players) went around to thank the fans. They were still smiling, kids looking for autographs and pictures, the San Diego Legion logo painted on their faces. The DJ was still going, the party was far from over. As I looked towards our Ownership, Marketing Manager and General Manager their smiles were as wide as the two young rugby fans who managed to get an autograph off All Black’s legend, Ma’a Nonu. It was a day that they’ll never forget, it was a day that all of us involved will never forget. As I greeted my neighbour who had been watching on, the delight in his son’s face came shining through as he just experienced his first viewing of rugby match. “When can we come back, Dad?” – I gladly told him, next week!

Major League Rugby began its existence in 2017 with its goal to bring North America a purposeful professional rugby competition that would grow the sport. San Diego Legion, with its staff, players and volunteers wished to be the beacon to that growth. Saturday put both Major League Rugby and San Diego Legion firmly on the rugby map, but maybe more importantly it put rugby on the Californian and American map.

John F. Kennedy had a vision and a plan, to do something that had never been done before. Like putting a man on the moon, the wish to grow rugby, and grow rugby in America, has been, and will continue to be, challenging and take time. But Saturday was a shift, a benchmark where rugby must now shoot for the moon and have its own Operation Mercury building towards an American 2031 Rugby World Cup. As President Kennedy said in his 1962 speech, “in a very real sense, it will not be one man going to the moon—if we make this judgment affirmatively, it will be an entire nation. For all of us must work to put him there.” San Diego Legion, Major League Rugby, World Rugby, USA Rugby, players, coaches, volunteers and fans are all in this together. I have a feeling that further history will be made and an MLR attendance record is there to be smashed again sooner than we know…

Images kindly provided by Griff Lacey & John Harrison


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