By Larry Fine
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The United States was the 'sleeping giant' of world rugby and the exposure generated by a recent All Blacks test should only help develop the sport in the country further, according to a group of Australian rugby greats.
The world champion New Zealand side showcased the speed, continuity and athleticism of top-class rugby in a 74-6 victory over the Eagles in a game televised by broadcaster NBC and in front of a sold-out crowd in excess of 61,000 at Chicago's Soldier Field last Saturday.
Despite the blown-out scoreline, former Wallabies' captain Nathan Sharpe only saw positives.
"I actually thought before the game, it was potentially a negative because if the All Blacks won by a huge margin then Americans might say 'why do you bother'," Sharpe told Reuters in a roundtable discussion on Thursday.
"But after the game, everybody was absolutely amped just for having the All Blacks on the deck. It was a great demonstration ... I think the All Blacks gave a pretty good display of what good rugby looks like."
Sharpe, who played in 116 tests for Australia over the last decade, was in the U.S. to help promote an inner-city youth rugby program and a scholarship fund to send promising players to the University of Queensland and build greater ties between the U.S. and Australian rugby.
He joined World Cup winners Michael Lynagh and John Eales, injured Wallabies hooker Stephen Moore and former U.S. captain Tim Usasz in the roundtable discussion before a dinner announcing the scholarship named after former Wallaby Mark Loane.
All were effusive in their desire for the game in the U.S. to grow with Lynagh describing the country as a sleeping giant of the sport, while Eales added their national side was becoming more competitive with the traditional power houses of the game.
"(The U.S.) its getting a lot more respect as time goes on," said Eales, who like Lynagh is a member of the International Rugby Board's Hall of Fame.
"If you look at the history of the World Cup and go back a few years, teams like the U.S., Japan when they came into the games they'd really compete for the first 30, 40 minutes and then just fade away.
"Now they're competing in the World Cups for 60, 65 minutes."
Eales, a member of the Australian Rugby Union board, added it could be possible for the Wallabies to follow the All Blacks into America.
"I think the players would love to do that," he said.
WORLD CUP EXPOSURE
More games against top-class opposition would only aid the development of the U.S. team's players, while next year's World Cup in England and the sport's return to the Olympics with rugby sevens at the 2016 Rio Games, would help in visibility and popularity according to Usasz.
"The exposure that the game got from playing the All Blacks on the weekend, playing the World Cup -- that's getting bigger and bigger and that's only positive," said the Australian-born Usasz, who thought the scholarship would also aid the development of young American players.
Wallabies hooker Moore, whose fledgling test captaincy lasted about one minute before he destroyed his knee against France in June and ended his season, said he hoped the World Cup and Olympics might spur the formation of a professional league.
He also said holding a World Cup in the United States could really lift the sport.
Japan is hosting the World Cup in 2019, while the U.S. is contemplating a bid for the 2023 event.
"Ultimately it would be great to see a rugby World Cup in the U.S.," said Moore. "A bit like soccer in 1994 (World Cup). From there Major League Soccer's taken off.
"Japan has the next one and I think you'll see a real boom in rugby around that time in Japan. Eventually it would be great to take one here."
(Editing by Greg Stutchbury)