When Mike Tolkin first started tossing a rugby ball around the New York City neighborhood where he grew up, most people struggled to even identify the sport in which he was taking his formative steps. Much has changed in 35 years. On Saturday, he will lead out the United States rugby team against the sport’s superpower, New Zealand, in front of a sold-out 61,500 crowd at Chicago’s Soldier Field.
“It will make the hairs on my neck stand up,” a focused Tolkin said in the midst of his preparations for the occasion of a lifetime and the ultimate challenge in rugby.
A stadium famous for showcasing the sport which grew out of rugby to dominate the American sports scene could now prove to be the venue for a defining moment in the growth of the original game in the United States. Not since close to the time when Tolkin was picking up a rugby ball for the first time have the New Zealand All Blacks, the most renowned team in rugby history as well as the current world champions, brought their famous Haka war dance stateside. The local response has already been enormous. A crowd more than three times as large as the previous record for a rugby game in the U.S. will be in attendance at the home of the Chicago Bears for a contest that will also be screened live across the country on NBC.
If this is U.S. rugby’s moment in the spotlight, it is also Tolkin’s. Perhaps more than anyone, his story mirrors that of the progression of the sport he loves in the country he has always called home. For more than 20 years, he combined heading up one of the top high school rugby programs in the country at New York’s Xavier High School with teaching English.
“I think coaching is very much about teaching; its communicating well it’s trying to get your message across,” he said. “So I think there’s a lot of skills in teaching that carry over to coaching.”
Having advanced through USA Rugby’s coaching system and impressed as a defensive coach for the team in the 2011 Rugby World Cup, Tolkin was handed the chance to lead his country following the departure of Irishman Eddie O’Sullivan. His background unquestionably makes him ideally suited to relate to the particular demands of his squad. While the All Blacks are comprised entirely of highly paid professionals, many of whom have notoriety that far transcends the sport in a country where rugby is king, the USA Eagles include several players who are forced to combine rugby with the daily rigors of a regular job. Mike Petri, a veteran of the last two World Cups, teaches math and science at Tolkin’s Xavier High School.
“It’s a challenge for them,” Tolkin admits. “It’s a challenge how can you be at your very best athletically when you have other things to deal with, like another job. But I give them credit because it builds character. They make a lot of sacrifices and work really hard to be here. It definitely helps the character aspect.”
Yet where once that background was the norm for U.S. internationals, it has gradually become more of a rarity. The Eagles can now call upon the likes of Samu Manoa, a quick and powerful California-native who was shortlisted for player of the year last season in England’s prestigious Premiership competition. In a country where it was once the most marginal of niche activities, the future for the sport, which will be boosted globally by its seven-a-side version returning to the Olympics in 2016, is bright. While overall participation in team sports fell by one percent in 2013, rugby participation blossomed by 33.4 percent, according to an independent survey by the Sports and Fitness Industry Association. Tolkin has witnessed the growth first-hand.
“[There’s] definitely a lot more kids,” he said. “When I was coaching many years ago there were only about 150 [high schools playing] nationwide. Now I’d say there’s close to 1000 nationwide high schools with kids playing. There’s a lot more mini and youth rugby around the country. And the level of athlete getting involved is much higher than it has been.”
Perhaps most encouragingly, Tolkin has seen evidence that rugby is now being viewed as a go-to option for young athletes in the U.S., rather than a fallback or off-season alternative for football or basketball players. To him, the reasons are clear.
“I think they like the physicality of it, I think that’s appealing,” Tolkin explained. “I think they like the sense of being able to do all the things of other spots combined. You have a lot of the handling and movement of say basketball and soccer, you have the contact, running and tackling of football. So I think it brings little bits of each American sport all together in one and I think they really like that. And I think they love the camaraderie of the game. It’s very unique in American sports.”
As the chief executive of USA Rugby since 2006, former England captain Nigel Melville has played a big part in its growth. Far from content, he now has his sights on hosting the World Cup Sevens – the showpiece event of a slimmed down version of the 15-a-side game -- as well as the World Cup in 2023. Melville was also heavily responsible for bringing the twice world champions to his adopted country for the first time since 1980. There is no attempt to disguise that the task of luring the All Blacks to American shores was eased considerably by the financial appeals of the U.S. market as well as the fact that New Zealand and the Eagles share a major sponsor -- insurance giant AIG. Yet Tolkin insists that the development of rugby on the field also played a significant part.
“Obviously it’s a market they want to break into, but at the same time you wouldn’t want to come over if they knew it was going to be a shambles,” he said. “So I think the fact that they’ve accepted the game, acknowledges a degree of respect.”
In the global landscape, the U.S. is ranked 18th in a sport where the traditional powers of New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, France and the nations of the British Isles still dominate. The Eagles’ last match against the All Blacks, at the 1991 World Cup, ended in a comprehensive 46-6 defeat. The task now is to be more competitive with the elite teams. Certainly no one expects that when the final whistle blows after 80 minutes at Soldier Field the scoreboard will reflect anything other than a win for the celebrated visitors. When asked what members of the star-studded New Zealand team he fears, Tolkin responded with a laugh and “everyone.” But, to Tolkin, earning further respect for U.S. rugby and making the historic occasion a springboard for similarly scaled events in the future, is very much attainable.
“I’m going to be happy if we walk off the field having left our blood and guts and given everything we have, and gotten the respect of the All Blacks and the international rugby community, as well as or fans,” he said. “I think that our guys, they’re going to put their best foot forward, they’re going to step up to the plate. And, you know, they’re American sportsmen and that’s what they do; they feast on that type of thing.”