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Not many professional rugby teams captured the attention of Mike Dabulas while he was growing up in New Jersey. He mostly played the sport, having been introduced to it by his father around age 6. But when Dabulas did watch professional rugby, he really only cared for one team: the New Zealand All Blacks. He would devour their matches on YouTube and one of his father’s friends would bring over DVDs of matches for them to watch together.
To Dabulas, the All Blacks, winners of the men’s Rugby World Cup in 1987, 2011, and 2015, represented the best of the sport. “Kind of like the [New England] Patriots in their peak, like nobody can touch them,” Dabulas says. “They have the best skills, best players, just the best team.”
On Saturday, Oct. 23, at FedExField, Dabulas will be one of 23 players suiting up for the U.S. men’s national rugby union team, commonly known as the Eagles, in a test match against the All Blacks for the 1874 Cup. The 24-year-old Dabulas will be a reserve fly-half and is the only player from Old Glory DC, the local Major League Rugby franchise, to make the roster. Jamason Faʻanana-Schultz, who also plays for Old Glory, participated in the 28-man training camp this week but did not make the final roster. He still has a chance to make the final 23 up until Saturday morning pending any injuries on the team, an Old Glory spokesperson tells City Paper. All the players for the USA Eagles this weekend also compete for one of the 12 Major League Rugby teams.
“It’s surreal,” Dabulas says of playing against the All Blacks. “Like I’m watching film on these players and I’m like, ‘I’ve been watching you for years.’ Damian McKenzie, Beauden Barrett, all those guys, I’m like, ‘I’ve literally been watching you play at that level. And now I have to play against them?’ It’s pretty funny.”
The 1874 Cup, named for the first year that rugby was played in the United States, is aiming to help raise the profile of the country’s bid to host the men’s Rugby World Cup in 2027 or 2031 and the women’s Rugby World Cup in 2029. The U.S. has never hosted either event. The All Blacks, currently ranked No. 2 in the world by World Rugby, will be playing in the U.S. for the first time since 2016, and organizers and players hope that having one of the most storied teams in the match will bring additional attention to the sport.
“Not every country gets to play the All Blacks, let alone host the All Blacks, so it’s a very special, rare event for any country in the world,” says Faʻanana-Schultz, a 25-year-old native of Australia whose father is American. Faʻanana-Schultz is confident that fans will show up for the All Blacks, not only for their play on the field, but for the haka, the traditional prematch Māori dance that the players perform on the field.
“The haka is one of the most well known spectacles and not just in rugby but any sport in the world or any event in the world,” he says. “The haka is an amazing thing and amazing thing just to watch.”
Both Dabulas and Faʻanana-Schultz have seen rugby’s growth in the United States. MLR launched in 2018 with seven teams and grew to 13 teams before the Colorado Raptors disbanded in 2020. Eleven of the 12 current teams are based in the U.S. with one, the Toronto Arrows, based in Canada.
“I think it’s changed drastically. I know, growing up, obviously rugby wasn’t very popular yet,” Dabulas says. “Now that the MLR is here, we’re on TV every week. Like, it’s pretty unreal. That’s not something I had when I was younger.”