By Aishwarya Kumar Lakshminarayanapuram
Paul Lasike is a football player now, but his roots lie in rugby.
Lasike, a running back on the Bears’ practice squad in 2015, grew up in New Zealand, where rugby is as big as football in the United States. His background made him more than qualified to discuss The Rugby Weekend, which was formally announced in a press conference Tuesday.
The competition will feature two of the top teams in the world: 2015 World Cup Champions New Zealand All Blacks will face the Irish National Team in Soldier Field on Nov. 4. U.S. National Team then will play against the Maori All Blacks on Nov. 5.
Lasike led Brigham Young University to three national championships in rugby. After completing his Mormon mission in Alabama, where he became interested in the contact sport that uses helmets, he returned to BYU to play football.
“I grew up as a rugby fan, as an All Blacks fan and to see them coming here in November is exciting for me,” said Lasike in an interview before the press conference. “To go back to my original sport, that’s the sport at heart.”
For Lasike, it is all about promoting rugby in the U.S. and making it a mainstream sport. International games will draw much attention and this increases the chance of U.S.A’s bid to host the Rugby World Cup in the near future, he said.
CEO of U.S. Rugby Nigel Melville hopes when the youth of America watch some of the best rugby players in the world, it will inspire them to be a part of the sport.
“People here like contact sport, they like team sport and rugby gives them both,” said Melville.
The press conference included players like Ryan Crotty of the New Zealand All Blacks and Tommy Bowe of the International Irish Team. The United States is one of the few places in the world where the star players could walk the streets without being noticed.
This is the second time the All Blacks team will be in Chicago. The last time they were here, it was for an international game against the U.S National Team in 2014. With 60,000 fans in attendance, the event was a huge success, said deputy mayor of Chicago Steve Koch.
Known for their famous Haka dance performed before every game, the All Blacks are currently the World Cup Champions and are the leading test match scorers of all time. They are the first team to win the Rugby World Cup back to back, a feat they accomplished on three occasions.
The All Blacks Crotty is looking forward to returning to Chicago.
“It was one of the most memorable and exciting events,” said Crotty. “We really enjoyed playing in the U.S. and to be able to go to a Blackhawks game and a Bulls game was really great.”
Officials hope the upcoming Summer Olympics also will help boost people’s interest in rugby and make The Rugby Weekend a major event in Chicago, U.S. National Team’s Andrews Durutalo said.
“The Olympics is going to generate a lot of interest and maybe inspire a new crop of youth that may or may not have watched the game,” Durutalo said.
Melville said he hoped Rugby Weekend would turn into an annual event. It even could be stretched to a week or even a month, he said. The extended event would feature rugby training for youth, interaction between upcoming U.S. and international players in addition to games.
Tickets for The Rugby Weekend will go sale April 1 at therugbyweekend.com.