For the first time in 34 years, the New Zealand All Blacks will take on the United States on American soil on Saturday. Having the most recognizable rugby team on the planet and the current world champions visit is a historic moment for the sport stateside but also a daunting task for the USA Eagles.

The teams haven’t met since the 1991 World Cup when the All Blacks ran out emphatic 46-6 winners. While rugby is on the rise in the United States, with participation numbers growing considerably, closing the gap to the elite teams remains a significant challenge. Indeed, simply getting matches against tier-one rugby countries is a huge obstacle. The last time a major team visited, the Eagles played out a highly respectable 15-12 defeat to Ireland in front of what was a then record crowd for a home match on American soil of just over 20,000. At Soldier Field, a 62,000 sell-out will be in attendance.

“Overall it’s going to be a great presence, where it is: national TV, location, opponent,” Eagles coach Mike Tolkin told IBTimes earlier this week. “Hopefully our guys get stuck in well. I think the really important thing though is how we move off this. We have to have some more events like this and we have to be consistent. It can’t be a one off every few years.”

Key to achieving that goal will be ensuring that the United States can provide New Zealand with decent competition on the field to accompany the obvious benefits of improving the All Blacks’ profile in the lucrative American market off it. Tolkin is confident his team can do just that, but is under no illusions as to the size of the task in front of them.

“I think the pace of the game will be as high as they’ve ever seen, as fast as they’ve ever seen,” he said. “Not getting too caught up in the deer in headlights. Huge crowd, the all blacks, we’ve got to kind of keep in the moment , keep in perspective; that’s going to be a challenge for us.”

It is a major boost then that Tolkin will have all the possible tools at his disposal. New Zealand could only be lured to the states outside of the International Rugby Board November window, which doesn’t begin until next weekend when the All Blacks face England, meaning clubs are not obliged to release their players. Fortunately USA Rugby struck a deal with the English Premiership, from which six members of the Eagles starting 15 are drawn, allowing the likes of Northampton’s Samu Manoa, Saracens’ Chris Wyles and Leicester Tigers’ Blaine Scully to give the Eagles a crucial boost in quality.

“I think if you played this game without those players it would have taken a lot away from this game,” Tolkin said. “It’s a big ask to begin with but to lose 25 percent at the top end of your team would be really challenging and I think it would lessen the spectacle significantly.”

While the Eagles will be at full-strength, New Zealand, by choice, most definitely won’t be. Coach Steve Hansen has made a full 12 changes to the team that beat Australia 29-28 in Brisbane two weeks ago. It reflects the fact that, while the contest is of huge significance for the U.S. team, for the All Blacks it is just another preparation game en route to trying to defend their World Cup crown in England next autumn. With matches upcoming against Scotland and Wales next month after taking on England at Twickenham, Hansen has defended his selection.

“The primary thing is that we've got to do the right thing for our team,” he said. “This is a great opportunity for us to give some people some game time and give some other people a bit of a breather because it's been a busy schedule.”

An inexperienced team will be missing captain Richie McCaw and record test points scorer Dan Carter, who will take his place on the bench after injury. An inexperienced 15 will, though, include Sonny Bill Williams, who switched to Rugby League for two seasons after the 2011 World Cup win, and has been hailed by Hansen this week as having the potential to “become one of the very, very best we’ve ever had.”



1. Eric Fry

2. Phil Thiel

3. Olive Kilifi

4. Samu Manoa

5. Hayden Smith

6. Todd Clever (C)

7. Scott Lavalla

8. Danny Barrett

9. Mike Petri

10. Adam Siddall

11. Brett Thompson

12. Andrew Suniula 1

3. Seamus Kelly

14. Blaine Scully

15. Chris Wyles

New Zealand

1. Joe Moody

2. Nathan Harris

3. Charlie Faumuina

4. Jeremy Thrush

5. Patrick Tuipulotu

6. Victor Vito

7. San Crane

8. Kieran Read (C)

9. Tj Perenara

10. Aaron Cruden

11. Charles Piutau

12. Sonny Bill Williams

13. Ryan Crotty

14. Cory Jane

15. Israel Dagg

Kickoff time: 4 PM ET

TV channel: NBC

Live stream: NBC Sports Live Extra