Wallabies Hit Chicago

The Chicago Zoo had all their Australian exhibits closed or out on loan to other places this week, but that didn't stop a host of Honey Badger sightings in and around "The Windy City," as two members of the Qantas Wallabies embarked on a whirlwind three day tour of Chicago to help build awareness and goodwill for the sport and their upcoming match at Soldier Field against the Eagles on September 5.

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The Honey Badger of note is flamboyant Aussie rugby sensation Nick Cummins, who along with rising Wallabies star Nic White made the trek from Australia to spread the global gospel of rugby. The response has been nothing short of outstanding.

"It's obvious to see from the turnout of everyone from young people to older guys and girls that rugby is really catching on here in the States," Cummins said just after a clinic for over 100 future rugby stars at Smith Park on Thursday morning despite a slight drizzle.

This was only the first stop in a day-long trek for the Aussie players that also included promotional appearances at Navy Pier and media stops with Fox, NBC and CBS along the way.

The day concluded with a solid adult clinic at Cricket Hill on Lakeshore Drive, where the boys mixed it up with members of the Chicago Dragons, one of the most diverse adult rugby clubs in the Midwest.

"The experience meant a lot to me personally, seeing how the Dragons have evolved since I joined the club and also the trajectory of my own career arc over the last twelve years," said coach Mackenzie Doolittle. "But more importantly, from a big picture perspective, (Thursday) night is what American audiences need to see when we talk about building rugby state." Doolittle was referring to the welcoming nature and supportive atmosphere fostered around the player's visit, an atmosphere that shows how supportive and inclusive rugby can be to peoples from around the world and from all walks of life.

The breakneck promotional tour continued on Friday with yet more media stops, and a visit to the site of the September match, Soldier Field. There, the pair got to exchange greetings and sports stories with former Chicago Bears All-pro Jerry Azumah, who welcomed the visitors to the site where just over nine months ago a record crowd of over 60,000 turned out to see the Eagles meet the vaunted All-Blacks.

A return to Chicago for the Eagles was fully understood by White as they surveyed the regular home of Chicago's NFL entry. "It's a massive stadium, very impressive, and what's even more impressive is that the support of rugby in the States has grown so much in the past few years that playing matches in places like this doesn't really surprise anyone now," he said. "It really is impressive how far the game has grown in the U.S., especially among so many young people, and what is even more impressive is that it appears that things here are just getting started in terms of growth."

Following some promotional appearances for game title sponsor Astellas and their Prostate Cancer Awareness program, the trip reached its midpoint Friday night with a visit to US Cellular Field, the home of the Chicago White Sox. The duo will end their trip with yet another full set of events on Saturday, including a photo-op with the Stanley Cup as part of Blackhawks fest, a trip to the Chicago Sports Hall of Fame to meet with members of the Australian community in the city, two more clinics and a return visit to Soldier Field to see pop star Taylor Swift. "We really didn't know what to expect when we heard about the trip, but the knowledge of the fans and the enthusiasm for the sport and for the game is very impressive," Cummins added.

In all, the Aussies will make almost 20 media and promotional stops in just over 72 hours for a welcoming and engaged public in and around Chicago, all helping raise awareness and support for both the September match and the fastest-growing sport in America.

"Everyone has been so welcoming, but we don't expect the fans to be that nice when we come back to meet the Eagles," White joked as Friday wound down.

Maybe there were no koalas or kangaroos around the zoo this week, but it seems like the "Honey Badger" and his mate have quickly become the Australian animal nickname of choice around Chicago, and that good will bodes well for when the Wallabies make their return in just a few months.

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