One of the first things you learn booking flights for this summer tour is that contrary to the initial IRFU missive announcing Ireland taking on the USA en route to Japan, is that it ain’t on the way to the Land of the Rising Sun.
Indeed, the vast majority of flights heading from the west coast of the United States to Japan travel over Europe to get there — they don’t go east. It means Ireland are going out of their way to play the USA at the Red Bull Arena in New Jersey this evening.
The reason for the game may only become apparent when the votes are tallied later this year in the battle to host the 2023 Rugby World Cup. The vote from the Yanks looks to be in the bag for Ireland. Put it another way, there ain’t any sign of the French or the South Africans pressing the flesh here this week and making all the right noises about how the game is growing on this side of the Atlantic.
This evening’s match is being screened live on NBC, close to a full house is expected at the 25,000 Red Bull Arena in Harrison and with AJ MacGinty at out-half for the Eagles, Cork native Paddy Ryan on the bench and former Leinster hooker Gavin Hickie, who is head coach at Dartmouth College here, involved in the home coaching team, there has been plenty of crossover interest.
Rugby is growing in the States but it is still miles down the pecking order for the hearts and minds and the sheer vastness of the country makes it a logistical nightmare. The presence of the Irish squad here this week went unnoticed among the public and given the difficulty soccer has had getting established here, it’s going to take a long time before the oval ball makes a significant impact.
The access is through television, hence the importance of this evening’s game going out live on one of the big networks. The US side is going through something of a transition and have shed a lot from the World Cup, while former All Black John Mitchell is leaving to take over the Blue Bulls after this series of games.
Appointing the right successor will be key for the Americans if they are to continue growing the sport in the coming years. The future is very much part of the Irish approach this week. Lions’ duty and injuries have meant this is the most inexperienced Irish squad Joe Schmidt has ever put together but after capping 20 players since the last World Cup, he knows these games are vital in broadening the base as they continue preparations for Japan in 2019.
John Ryan, the Munster prop who will make his first start this evening to add to the six appearances off the bench, laughed at the notion during the week that, at 28, he is the fourth oldest in the squad. Schmidt will expect Ireland to approach this game as they would an encounter against more serious opposition and the new kids on the block have been left under no illusions about what is expected of them.
The inclusion of Japan in their World Cup pool has added another layer to the two tests coming up there over the next two Saturdays.
Getting to the Land of the Rising Sun will be the first task for the small number of travelling Irish journalists. A 16-hour hike to Hong Kong tomorrow morning, followed by another five hours on to Tokyo, is my passage. I haven’t even tried to count the time zones but am supposed to be there late on Monday night.
I hope to goodness they have the vote from the Yanks well wrapped up by that stage!
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